THIS time last season, Brodie Jones' toughest opponent was himself.
After two years in Newcastle's full-time NRL squad, he appeared no closer to making his top-grade debut, and admitted he had "perhaps lost a bit of self-belief and hope in myself".
But the perfect remedy for self-doubt arrived in round three of this season, when the Cessnock Goannas junior was named on the bench for Newcastle's clash with Penrith at Campbelltown - the first game after the coronavirus hiatus. Any hopes of the rookie back-rower easing into action were torpedoed when the Knights lost Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson to concussion and injury respectively in the opening minutes.
Before Jones could gather his thoughts, he was on the field, marking up against the formidable Viliame Kikau, who soon crashed over for a try. But the 22-year-old recovered from that daunting setback to make 51 tackles in 82 minutes, as the Knights fought back to notch a 14-all draw after a golden-point thriller.
As debuts go, it was a sink-or-swim assignment and the 2016 Australian Schoolboys representative lived to tell the tale.
Since then, he has made another five appearances in Newcastle's top team, and week by week is growing in confidence.
"I feel much more comfortable," he said.
I feel much more comfortable.BRODIE JONES
"Not just the physicality of it, and the speed of everything, but finding my role among the players and how I fit into the team."
His burgeoning self-belief was perhaps best illustrated in Friday's 38-10 win against Cronulla, when as second receiver, he threw a deft final pass that sent fullback Kalyn Ponga over for his hat-trick.
"I suppose to throw that pass I did on the weekend, I wouldn't have felt comfortable the first couple of games to do that," he said. "But it all just happened.
"I feel heaps more comfortable among the players, so it's all positive."
Jones said he was "loving every minute" of living out his childhood dream, but accepts a reality check might be looming on the horizon now that senior players Daniel Saifiti and Sione Mata'utia are returning from injury.
"I can understand that but I obviously don't want that, and I'll be fighting hard to get into the team," he said. "But that's just how footy is and how it all works. I'll do what I can to not miss out, but if that's how it is, so be it and I'll work hard to get back in."
Jones has been named in the 17 for Saturday's clash with Sydney Roosters at the SCG but could yet make way for Mata'utia. If he get the chance, he predicted it would be a "pretty surreal moment" to line up against Sonny Bill Williams, who he described as an idol of his youth.
"At the same time we want to win and will be doing every we can to win," he said.
Off contract at the end of the season, Jones will be hoping to extend his stay.
"I'm not really worried about that at the moment," he said. "There's bigger things to worry about.
"That'll all sort itself out.
"I still want to stay, and I believe everything happens for a reason. It'll all work out the way it's supposed to."
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