Rabbitohs prop Mark Nicholls says he pinches himself when he thinks back on the season, and not just because he’s about to run out for a grand final.
For the journeyman prop, simply starting a few games was top of his list of pre-season goals. He ended up captaining the Rabbitohs in their final regular-season game and will be one of their foundations in the middle of the field as they try to upset the Panthers on Sunday.
The bush-bred 31-year-old has been one of the success stories in the Rabbitohs’ grand final charge. He has averaged 115m over 26 games and has been as consistent as he’s been resilient.
“I have to pinch myself a little bit,” Nicholls said. “At the beginning of the year, I set a goal just to start some games. For me, I’ve established myself as an NRL player but always off the bench. I wanted the opportunity to start and see how I go.
“It’s crazy to think at the start of the year I was on the bench, got the opportunity mid-season and have started ever since.”
As always, there is a Wayne Bennett story. Nicholls has two, one from the start of this season, one from the time when Bennett first arrived at Redfern before the 2019 campaign. On that occasion, Nicholls and fellow bookend Junior Tatola felt like naughty schoolboys when they were held back after a team meeting.
Mark Nicholls has had a season to remember for Souths.Credit:Getty
Instead, Bennett said he saw them both as key cogs in his middle rotation. For a fringe player like Nicholls, it was the greatest gift the new coach could give.
“He asked me and Junior to stay behind. He said he had watched every game from last year and had watched us train. He said he saw both of us as NRL players even though we were in and out of the team the year before. He told us he would pick us both off the bench in round one,” Nicholls says.
“At that stage of the pre-season, most coaches would pick the team off trials and training. For Wayne to say that, it put confidence in both of us as fringe players. He just said we didn’t have to worry about our spot in the team, we’d be there no matter what.
“For a coach of his stature and experience to tell me that after knowing me for a month, that’s the relationship he’s built with me since that day. That’s why players love playing for him. And since that moment, I’ve never wanted to let him down.”
There was a similar exchange earlier this season, although this time it was Bennett asking Nicholls if he could do the job as a starter, not contribute from the interchange bench.
“I was confident in my ability but, at that stage, my job for the team was off the bench. But a few weeks later the opportunity arrived and it’s probably a bit easier, if I’m honest, because you can just get out and get straight into it. I don’t use up that nervous energy.”
Nicholls’ journey has not only taken him from a player on the edge of first grade to a starter but from a player happy just to contribute to being a team leader. He beamed with pride when he was given captaincy honours against the Dragons.
“Until we signed Benji [Marshall], I was the oldest bloke in the team, lost the hair a couple of years ago,” he said. “Naturally, you mature and become a bit of a leader. I got to captain that last game and a lot of the young guys in that game are the future of the club. It was a proud moment.”
Nicholls’ job is to grind out the tough metres through the middle and make sure he stops the momentum of his opposite number. But a rare try – make that a double – against the Roosters late in the season was an overdue treat for the blue-collar prop.
“I think I scored a try in 2012 and then didn’t score again until last year. It was a long time between drinks. I score a few tries at training so it was good to get some for real. Front rowers love scoring tries and a double at that, I probably ran six metres combined.”
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