Melbourne rookie Scott Drinkwater has credited training sessions with Billy Slater for enhancing his fullback play as he targets replacing the retiring champion in 2019 after securing a contract extension.
The 21-year-old will play fullback for Easts Tigers against Redcliffe in the Intrust Super Cup grand final at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday just weeks after making an impressive NRL debut for the Storm against Penrith in round 25.
Drinkwater, who has agreed to terms on a two-year extension at Melbourne, was a halfback in his schoolboy days but has been on fire for the Tigers at fullback after fine tuning his play under the tutelage of Slater at the personalised sessions the Storm legend conducts with the club’s fullbacks.
"Those sessions are awesome and when Bill speaks your ears are always open to what he has to say because he is the best in the business in that No.1 jersey," Drinkwater told NRL.com.
"You see how many times he makes that extra effort to catch the ball on the full, how he reads kicks and how good he is setting the defensive line with his talk … and they are the areas he drills into you the most.
"Just being able to train alongside him day-in and day-out is pretty good because he was one of my idols growing up.
"I grew up playing in the halves and it wasn’t until the start of the pre-season where I trained a bit at fullback. I’ve still got a lot to learn but I am loving the new position."
Securing the starting fullback position next year is far from guaranteed.
"With Bill moving on it is one of the big reasons why I decided to stay at the Storm, but Jahrome Hughes has been brilliant this year when he's played fullback," he said.
"Ryan Papenhuyzen was fullback for the Australian Schoolboys [in 2015] as well so there is a lot of competition."
The Storm had their eye on Drinkwater while he was carving up for Terrigal High School and the Central Coast Centurions in the SG Ball Cup.
Storm recruitment boss Paul Bunn had just sat down to watch the Australian open schoolboys championships in 2015 when he saw a young half put on a show-and-go and slice through the line.
"I was sitting in the grandstand with Matt Adamson, who was recruiting for me at the time, and I said to Matt ‘that kid out there … geez, he goes good. Who the hell is he?’" Bunn told NRL.com.
"We looked him up and it was young Drinkwater, who we'd been monitoring. Lo and behold, we were sitting beside his parents and we struck up a conversation."
Drinkwater starred at the tournament and was selected for Australian Schoolboys in the halves with Nathan Cleary.
The Storm invited Drinkwater and his parents to Melbourne to tour the facilities, took them to dinner at club co-owner Matt Tripp’s place and got a three-year deal done despite interest from the Sydney Roosters and other clubs.
"He has got a lot tougher with his defence and he is putting his body on the line a lot more in attack,” Bunn said.
"He’s been targeted a lot more this year in the Q Cup but he's come up trumps."
Drinkwater said repeatedly getting smashed at Storm training had forged extra resilience in his game.
"At the Storm the NRL team does a lot of defensive work and if you are not in the 17 you are one of the guys that runs the ball at Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Dale Finucane and Jesse Bromwich. When you can do that it gives you confidence to run the ball at anyone,” he said.
"You get hit, get back up and run again. That's what is expected of you."
Drinkwater played in the Intrust Super Cup grand final for Sunshine Coast Falcons last year.
"And we got beaten in the last minute by PNG so it is good to get back in another decider, especially for Easts which is such a proud club and one of the longest serving clubs in the Queensland Rugby League,” he said.
"Easts have previously been to four grand finals in the Queensland Cup and are yet to win one so it's one of the most important games in the club’s history and I can’t wait to get out there and achieve a grand final win."
Easts Tigers coach Scott Sipple said Drinkwater had done "everything right" at fullback this year.
"I think he is the best player in the comp," he said.
"Scott is a smart footballer who will ring me during the week and watch videos of the opposition and [talk about] plays he wants to work on.
"Last year he wasn’t doing that. He was probably a bit shy but now he is putting his hand up and being a leader and a voice. I don’t think we’ll have him too much next year."