Caleb Aekins was one of only three players to break more than 100 tackles in the 2018 season

He's the unheralded Panther at the heart of Penrith's Intrust Super Premiership NSW title defence.

And though small in stature, Caleb Aekins is big in heart – with every possession, he looks a man on a mission.

The New Zealand-born, Rugby Union-convert has taken the ISP NSW competition by storm in 2018, leading the minor premiership-winning Panthers to a Preliminary Finals appearance in two weeks' time.

The 20-year-old flyer crossed for a try in Penrith's 28-18 win over the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in the sides' Qualifying Final clash at Panthers Stadium, his efforts ensured a Week Three finals berth at Leichhardt Oval.

"It's awesome to cap off the season with a rest going into the [Preliminary Final], the week off will be good for us," Aekins told NSWRL.com.au of the Panthers' Finals Week One success.

"I couldn't be happier with how this year has panned out, personally. I didn't expect to be where I am."

On the back of his early-to-mid-year success in the ISP, Aekins was called upon to make his NRL debut in Round 18.

"I really enjoyed the pre-season, it was my first time doing an NRL pre-season, training at that professional level. I've built off that – I wasn't even expecting to play this much (Intrust Super Premiership NSW), let alone make an NRL debut," Aekins said.

"It was only six or seven years ago that I started playing League... I was playing up in the North [of New Zealand]. After one of my top-age games at school, my manager got in contact with the Panthers and it just went from there. I feel very privileged."

Carrying on the form that earned a first-grade call-up upon his return to the state-based competition, Aekins quickly became a name on opposition tip sheets – if it wasn't already there.

Tackle-Breaking Brilliance: Caleb Aekins troubles the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs' defence
Tackle-Breaking Brilliance: Caleb Aekins troubles the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs' defence ©Robb Cox/NRLPhotos

A renowned runner of the ball, the centre-turn-fullback notched five tackle-breaks in the win over the Bulldogs at the weekend – taking his personal tally beyond 100 (102) this season, second only to Dragons' No.1, Patrick Herbert (114).

Since transitioning from the 15-man game, Aekins has come to learn that Rugby League – and particularly the custodian role – suits his style to no end.

I wasn't even expecting to play this much (Intrust Super Premiership NSW), let alone make an NRL debut.

Caleb Aekins

And while satisfied with his efforts to date, Aekins has identified an area of his game that he is working tirelessly to improve upon.

"Last year was my first year at fullback, ever. I'd never played there, I'd always been a centre. Round 1, last year in '20s, I started at fullback – it was actually a late decision. I haven't looked back since," he said.

"I love the space, I love that eyes-up play, being able to pick and choose when and where to get involved.

"Ball-playing has been a big focus for me throughout the year. It's the one area of my game that I am continually working on... I know I can and need to improve on that, that sleight-of-hand out the back."

Winning through to the Week Three Preliminary Final fixture, the Panthers are drawn to face the winner of the Jets-Mounties Week Two Semi-Final, to be contested this weekend.

Despite completing their sets at a rate bordering on 80 per cent against the Bulldogs, Aekins knows the Panthers need to be better in the Grand Final-qualifier.

"We need to stick together when times get tough... there were moments out there [against the Bulldogs] that were a bit iffy. We did it really well towards the end there, we defended six sets on our line, back-to-back," Aekins said of the Week Three finals clash to come.

"But that's what we need to keep on doing, keep in that cycle. That's where it'll be won."