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Persistence pays off for honest, reliable Nicholls

As a footballer and as a person, Mark Nicholls only knows how to be honest, dependable and hard-working.

Early in his career, when he struggled for consistent NRL appearances, he wondered whether to keep persisting.

Now, with the affable Rabbitohs prop preparing for Sunday's grand final against the Panthers, that tenacity has been rewarded.

"Twice in my career, I went nearly two years between NRL games. There were certainly times there where I didn't doubt my ability but I maybe doubted whether it was worth it," Nicholls said.

"I kept coming back to the fact I was doing what I wanted to do as a kid; I love playing footy and if I wasn't playing NRL then I was going to go and play Q Cup or NSW Cup or the highest level I could.

"Simply because I enjoy playing the game and I enjoy being around my mates. I never doubted my ability, but there were definitely tough times. That makes it all worthwhile now."

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Coming through the under-age ranks with Canberra, the boy from Leeton couldn't fall back on natural gifts to propel him to the top.

Raiders playmaker Sam Williams played junior representative and NYC footy with Nicholls and they struck up a lasting friendship.

"He actually played quite a bit of edge back-row in the younger days. Even then, it wasn't as though he was a prolific try-scorer or someone who tore teams apart," Williams told NRL.com.

Mark Nicholls as a Canberra Raider.
Mark Nicholls as a Canberra Raider. ©NRL Photos

"He's just always been extremely reliable and I think every team he's played with, the players have always enjoyed having him around.

"It was no different back then. He was always one of the most reliable players we had. As he moved into the [middle] forwards, he became the way his game's evolved – doing his job and being relied upon.

"He's a pretty mild-mannered bloke, very switched on and he's got a very level head. We had some really enjoyable years in the under-20s when you had a little bit more of a licence to go out.

"He's always just been a really good mate. He's someone you can always rely on. The way he plays the game is the sort of bloke he is."

Nicholls made his NRL debut for Canberra in 2012 – with Williams at halfback in a win over the Dragons – and played 12 games that year.

However, the next four years brought about just seven first-grade matches before Nicholls headed to Melbourne in 2017.

"Although I didn't play many games down there [nine in total], I definitely felt I had improved as a footy player," Nicholls said.

"I always believed in my ability, I just hadn't really got a crack."

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Before arriving at South Sydney in 2018, Nicholls admits he was still "probably a reserve-grader". Given an extended run under Anthony Seibold, and even more so by Wayne Bennett, he has flourished.

"From the first day I came here, I always felt like I'd found a bit of a home. Off-field, I met my wife [Perrie] and recently had a kid [Darcie].

"In my younger years, I probably enjoyed a beer a little bit too much. I was always a good trainer, but I probably wasn't as much of a professional off the field.

"I always felt like I was playing good footy in reserve grade, I just wasn't getting the opportunities in first grade to show what I could do.

"The other thing is when you do get the opportunity that I've had here and you start to string together games and back-to-back seasons then you do get that confidence and belief.

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"I know what my strengths are and I know what I bring to a team. Instead of worrying about the stuff I can't do, I go out every weekend and do the stuff I know I can do and the stuff that helps the team."

Williams, who usually speaks to Nicholls once a week, said the front-rower has become an integral asset for South Sydney.

"Sometimes it's just about finding your place within a team ... finding the right team dynamics where he really gets to shine," he said.

"He's not the most dynamic player, but he really understands his body position and how to find a bit of space or square someone up to give him the best opportunity of a quick play-the-ball.

"For a bloke who's not the most powerful or strongest, it's unbelievable the amount of times he manages to find his front and the Rabbitohs are able to play on the back of it."

It seems ridiculous now, but Nicholls was once handed the goal-kicking duties in an NYC match, finishing his under-20s career for the Raiders with five conversions from 10 attempts.

"I'll tell you a story about that," Williams laughed.

Mark Nicholls playing for Melbourne.
Mark Nicholls playing for Melbourne. ©NRL Photos

"It was a day before a game. I think we were playing the Cronulla Sharks and our current [NRL] assistant coach Andrew McFadden was our coach.

"I forget who it was, but our normal kicker was out. I naturally thought I'd be next in line. Just in the last five minutes of captain's run, [Nicholls] has knocked two goals over from the sideline and Cappy's decided to give him the kicking duties ahead of me.

"I don't think I ever got to have a shot [at goal] in the 20s after that. He took the kicking duties off me and if you saw him kick that day or kick since you'd be in disbelief."

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Only a few years ago, the prospect of Nicholls winning an NRL title was about as remote as the 31-year-old kicking goals full-time. 

"You see a lot of players come into the NRL or the first-grade system quite young and it probably doesn't always hit home at the time about what it means to win a premiership," Williams said.

"For him now to be a really important cog in the chances of the Bunnies winning a grand final, I think all that hard work and times where he wasn't getting a run will all come together for him.

"It's not often I wear my Rabbitohs jersey but this weekend I certainly will be for the sake of Mark and I'd just love to see him get it."