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Sharks forward Toby Rudolf.

Thinking his NRL dream was over in 2017, Toby Rudolf cried to his mum and told her: "I've failed."

Now on the cusp of a first-grade debut with Cronulla, it's been a long and difficult journey for the 23-year-old prop.

After impressing for the Rabbitohs in the NYC under 20s in 2016, Rudolf was promoted to the top squad.

It was meant to be a launchpad for his career but Rudolf, who languished in reserve grade, considers it "the worst year of my life".

"If I knew why I would've changed it on the spot," Rudolf told NRL.com.

"In 20s I was going okay and then I don't really know what happened. I couldn't get my mojo back and my confidence was at an all-time low.

"I remember crying to my mum being like, 'I've failed. This is it.' It wasn't for me anymore."

Toby Rudolf after the Canterbury Cup NSW grand final.
Toby Rudolf after the Canterbury Cup NSW grand final. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

Not re-signed by Souths, Rudolf decided to persevere - "I would've regretted just giving it away" - and joined the Redcliffe Dolphins in Queensland's Intrust Super Cup.

There he regained his rhythm while balancing football with work.

"I ended up having three jobs in one year. Landscaper, which was awful; door-to-door salesman, which was worse; and for six months I was a truck driver, which was unreal," he said.

"I just drove from place to place, stopped at Woolies eight times a day, got my breaks in as many times as I could, ate as much food as I could, and had a really good year with Redcliffe.

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"We won the comp that year and I played almost every game. I'm still very good friends with those lads up there. That club turned me around."

Rudolf's hot form earned him a two-year NRL contract with the Sharks for 2019 and 2020. Everything was rosy as he took out man of the match honours in the Intrust Super Cup grand final.

Then he copped another cruel setback. The day after officially inking the Cronulla deal, Rudolf tore his ACL during Redcliffe's State Championship loss to Canterbury on NRL grand final day.

Unable to press for a top-30 spot in the Sharks squad throughout the pre-season, he stayed on a second-tier development deal while he rehabbed his knee.

"The head noise was rife," Rudolf said, adding that he had to wait eight weeks for surgery because "my knee was so screwed up."

"It was hard to get through it but I think I'm a mentally tougher person now because of it. Everything happens for a reason."

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The season wasn't a total write-off, however, as the forward returned to the field late in the year with Newtown, Cronulla's feeder team.

He featured in the last six games as the Jets went on a winning streak to clinch the Canterbury Cup NSW title from seventh place before stealing the State Championship crown against Burleigh in a thriller.

Rudolf was judged man of the match in that fixture, banishing the demons from 12 months earlier.

He's cheekily given himself the nickname "Clive" - as in the Clive Churchill Medal awarded to the best player in the NRL grand final.

"The boys tend to like it, it's catching on," Rudolf laughed.

With veteran prop Matt Prior having departed Cronulla for Super League club Leeds Rhinos, a place in the pack is up for grabs.

Rudolf makes no secret that he desperately hopes to take it.

Toby Rudolf playing for Newtown in 2019.
Toby Rudolf playing for Newtown in 2019. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"That's why I'm here," he said.

"Whether it's off the bench at the start [or] getting that starting spot – I just want to be in that team.

"I've been playing now forever long; the debut's never been so clear in front of me and I'm just chasing it as hard as I can.

"I'll pick myself if I put my best foot forward and that's what I'm planning on doing."

Sharks coach John Morris has a high opinion of Rudolf and sees success on the horizon.

"I said to him, 'If you nail this next five or six weeks [of pre-season], it could be the start of a really long career for you'," Morris said.

"He's very physical, he's got a real big motor, can play big minutes. A rugged type of middle-edge forward.

"I'm expecting big things from him but he hasn't played a game yet, so I don't want to get too excited."

For the moment, Rudolf is feeling the "torture" of pre-season - but he reckons it easily beats driving trucks.