Nicholls decade-long NRL wait finally over

Scott Bailey

St George Illawarra will make Darren Nicholls the oldest rookie half in the NRL era after naming him at No.7 for Thursday night's clash with Melbourne.

Nicholls, 29, will cover for Queensland's Ben Hunt in a State of Origin depleted Dragons side, without five regulars for the Melbourne trip.

But for Nicholls, the match marks the culmination of a 10-year journey that began with him being the Wests Tigers' halfback for the maiden season of Toyota Cup back in 2008.

Since then he's spent two years playing professionally in France, played reserve grade for Wyong, moved back and forth between South Sydney and Brisbane twice, won a NSW Cup title at Penrith and moved to the Dragons.

But finally, he's set for an NRL debut under Paul McGregor this weekend.

"It's been a journey for me," Nicholls said.

"I've been close before but this is the closest.

"I think as a footy player you can always imagine yourself playing the top grade and there are times where there are injuries and you think it could be your go.

"But it just hasn't happened yet."

According to Fox Sports Stats, Nicholls selection sees him set to overtake Craig Trindall as the oldest rookie halfback since the Super League war, who was 27 when he played his only three games for Penrith in 2006.

But Nicholls believes his age and years of reserve grade experience will leave him better positioned than most for a first grade debut after guiding the Dragons to third in the NSW Cup this year.

"When I first played under-20s I was nowhere near first grade," Nicholls said.

"Each year and each system I have been in the coaches will say you need to work on this, or this part of your game.

"You pick apart with the different coaches you have and each coach has different expertise.

"Each year I think I've slowly and gradually got better and better."

This season also marks the second time Nicholls has played second fiddle to Hunt, having previously acted as his back-up at the Broncos in 2016.

And he admitted Hunt's Origin chances were part of the reason he moved to the Dragons after winning the NSW Cup with Penrith last year, eying a clear path to a first grade opportunity.

"You weigh up that sort of stuff when signing with a club," Nicholls said.

"Ben has been good for numerous years and when I signed here I knew there would be an opportunity around Origin time and that sort of stuff.

"It came into my decision to come here."