IT wasn't so long ago that Chris Randall was earning a quid as a scaffolder and running around with his Lakes United mates on the weekends.
At the time, the prospect of playing in the NRL seemed beyond his wildest dreams.
Now the 24-year-old late bloomer has not only realised a childhood ambition by representing his home-town club in the world's toughest rugby league competition, he has also staked a worthy claim for a spot in Newcastle's squad for the last round of the season and the finals.
Appearing in the fifth top-grade game of his career, Randall created the opening try for Kalyn Ponga and topped the tackle count with 34 as the Knights outgunned St George Illawarra 42-18 at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday.
Randall's performance leaves Newcastle coach Adam O'Brien facing a selection dilemma, given that Kurt Mann is set to return from a one-week suspension for the crucial last-round clash with Gold Coast at CBus Super Stadium on Friday.
Mann had been Newcastle's starting hooker in the previous six games, after season-ending injuries to Jayden Brailey, Connor Watson and Andrew McCullough.
But Mann's preferred position is five-eighth, which is where he could conceivably play if the coach opts to retain Randall at dummy-half.
Alternatively, O'Brien could reinstate Mann as hooker, retain Mason Lino at five-eighth, and choose between Randall and Phoenix Crossland for the role of bench utility.
Whichever way O'Brien opts to go, Randall admitted it felt slightly surreal to be playing for the team he has followed for as long as he can remember.
"I've grown up in Newcastle, so I've always supported the Knights," he said.
"I was going to home games since I was five years old.
"So even running out today [against the Dragons], it was my first home game and I was just trying to take it all in.
"I had to pinch myself and realise what was happening. It was a bit of a dream come true. I was stoked."
After a draw and three losses in his first four NRL games, Randall was delighted to finally join the team victory song.
"I was just happy to get my first win," he said
"To get a break and help set up a try, it's a good feeling. And my first home game, too.
"That makes it even better."
Randall said it would be "awesome" to potentially play some role in Newcastle's first finals campaign since 2013.
"We've still got a job to do this week, against the Titans," he said. "That's our priority.
"We need to win that, and if we do, that home semi will follow. So that's what we're playing for, and to get it done would be massive."
Randall said he had no qualms about pulling on the apparently cursed No.9 jersey.
Not only have Brailey, McCullough and Watson endured major injuries, but Randall suffered a concussion in his previous game as Newcastle's starting hooker.
"I don't really worry about that stuff," he said.
"I'm just worried about doing my job."
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