It wasn't that long ago Daly Cherry-Evans was in representative exile. But a week out from ending his four-year hiatus in the Australian team, Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has told the Manly halfback the national side is now "his team".
It was believed a clash of personalities between Cherry-Evans and the senior players involved with the Queensland and Australian teams denied the No.7 more opportunities in representative teams in recent years.
But the representative retirement of some of those players has opened the door for Cherry-Evans to be the face of a new generation in Australian rugby league.
"Daly will be our key guy," Meninga said after Cherry-Evans starred in the Australian PM's XIII victory over Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby on Saturday.
"It's his team. We don't have a Cameron Smith to control the ruck area or through the middle. "We have to have a plan how to get Damien Cook into the game and work out a way to play to the strengths of James Tedesco and Cameron Munster ... it is the changing of the guard."
Match Highlights: Prime Minister's XIII v PNG; 2018
Cherry-Evans, sitting next to Meninga in the press conference, was doing his best to disguise his excitement after being handed the keys to the castle by one of the nation's greatest players.
"I'm trying not to smile right now," Cherry-Evans said.
"It's nice. It's very nice. But I'm not going to get too ahead of myself. Now my focus shifts for next week. As Mal said, our spine are four different players and we all have our different strengths and weaknesses.
"The best thing for Australia moving forward is sitting down with the coaching staff and the players and making sure we play to our strengths. I think the footy brains amongst that group will be in good shape."
The Australian team landed in Brisbane on Sunday morning after their 34-18 win over the Kumuls, with the rest of the squad that didn't play in PNG to meet them before heading to Auckland on Tuesday ahead of the Test against the Kiwis.
With Cook to wear the No.9, Meninga is still undecided whether he will pick Tyrone Peachey or Ben Hunt on the bench as the utility, also admitting there could be the option of four big men on the bench given the size of both the New Zealand and Tongan packs.
"We're playing against big sides," Meninga said.
"Do we pick a side to match them or pick a side with good speed and footwork and take advantage of the lateral speed? We know Damien can play 80 [minutes]. I'm always confident with this side."
"We'll take our squad of 19 but we'll pick the best 17 for the game."