Few have waited for an NRL debut longer than Darren Nicholls.
After captaining the Wests Tigers in the 2008 Toyota Cup season, the then-20-year-old packed his bags and jetted to France to perfect his craft, before returning to Australia to play for Wyong.
Nicholls would go on to join the South Sydney Rabbitohs in 2013, before signing with the Anthony Griffin-coached Brisbane Broncos a year later.
Returning to Redfern in 2015 and linking with then-Bears No.6 Cody Walker in the side’s halves, Nicholls moved back to the Broncos, in 2016 – still on the pursuit of his NRL dream.
Though not to see first grade in Brisbane, again Nicholls was on the move – this time to Penrith, where he would go on to lead the Panthers to the 2017 Intrust Super Premiership title.
This is the first year since 2013 that Nicholls has lived in the same state for more than a year.
All for a chance to play in the NRL.
And tonight – after a decade of trying – the dream comes true for the Holy Cross, Balmain junior.
He’s not just been playing in the Intrust Super Premiership or Intrust Super Cup for years, he’s been dominating them.
In a star-studded Panthers outfit to claim last year’s NSW Premiership, Nicholls won the Chairman’s Medal, having been deemed the best on ground in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW Grand Final.
Is the man they call ‘Dezie’ the best player to have not played first grade? Just ask the man he was stuck behind last year – now-NSW Origin halfback, Nathan Cleary.
“I think he is, I think he definitely is the most deserving of an NRL debut,” Cleary says to NSWRL.com.au.
“I’m absolutely stoked for Dezie, all of us boys get along with him really well and the two of us are pretty close, we still stay in contact.
“He’s 29 now, he’s been to a lot of clubs and he’s been through a lot to get this debut and I’m really looking forward to watching him.
“There’s no one that deserves a debut more than him.”
Since he’s been to so many clubs, there will be a huge amount of former teammates and former coaches with their eyes fixed on the television tonight to watch this well-deserved debut.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of speaking to Nicholls knows what he brings to a club even without a football in sight.
Dragons teammate Tariq Sims describes him as the most positive person he’s ever met, Cleary calling him a joy to be around.
There’s no one that deserves a debut more than him.Nathan Cleary
Above all, persistence has got Nicholls his debut tonight, as his football ability has never been in doubt.
“He’s a great bloke and obviously a great footy player, I’m really looking forward to see how he goes tonight and hopefully he can solidify a first grade spot,” Cleary says.
“He’s just a character, he’s really good to have around, even when he’s not playing first grade he still gels in well with the team.
“There are people that might kick stones, he’s 29 now and he’s not been kicking stones about not getting a run, it’s really well deserved.”
Sims will make his State of Origin debut next week, but admits he would love to be out there playing with Nicholls against the Melbourne Storm tonight.
A true journeyman, Sims says Nicholls is a pleasure to have around the club, but most importantly, backs him to do a job for the table-leading Dragons against one of the competition heavyweights.
“He’s a very passionate footy player and I think he’ll go well tonight as long as the forwards lay a good platform for him and ‘Gaz’ [Gareth Widdop],” Sims says.
“He’ll compliment Gaz really well, he’s such a hard worker that does a lot of things behind the scenes and it’s great to see him finally get his crack tonight.
“I’m proud of him and I’m also excited for his family to sit back and watch him play on the big stage.
“I’ll be glued to the TV.”
With Ben Hunt in flying form, this time of year was the most likely time Nicholls would get his chance for the Dragons.
It was almost a disaster however, with an incredibly unlucky throat injury meaning he had to sit out for some time just a few weeks ago.
That is just one example of the many setbacks he’s faced, making this debut all the more special.
“He’s a champion bloke, a quality player and a bit of a journeyman, but the dream has always been alive for him,” Sims says.
“I know how hard he’s worked all through the pre-season and all of the setbacks that has happened throughout his career.
“Even this year he’s had a few setbacks, but to his credit, he’s playing tonight.
“I can’t find a bad word to say about him, he’s such a pleasure to have at the club and I’m lucky to call him a mate.”