AAP Rugby

Prior’s long road to Origin Blues debut

By AAP Newswire

For a long time Matt Prior was a victim of his own versatility.

A forward throughout his junior years in Thirroul, the unpresuming wannabe pro surfer suddenly found himself running out in the centres for his first NRL club St George Illawarra.

Happy just to be on the field, Prior played centre, back row, front row, plugging whatever hole was required under coach Wayne Bennett and then Steve Price, and was rewarded with a cameo off the bench in the Dragons' triumphant 2010 grand final.

It was somewhere during this period that the 31-year-old - the fourth-oldest NSW debutant in State of Origin history - believes a misconception about his natural position was born.

"Everyone thinks I played as a centre moving into the forwards," Prior told AAP.

"But I grew up in the forwards - I've always been a utility ... who played in the centres if you needed me.

"And then with the Dragons I worked my way out there just to fill a job.

"I actually started in, worked my way out, then worked my way back in."

By his own assessment, Prior performed pretty well at centre but "was never setting the world on fire out there" and didn't feel quite at home.

There might have been a winning line had Bennett, a Queensland Origin institution, been the man responsible for creating the Blues' newest front-rower.

In truth it wasn't until Prior signed with Cronulla in 2014 that he truly returned to his positional roots, excelling at prop under Shane Flanagan and new Sharks assistant Price to become a key member of the 2016 premiership-winning side.

"I'm a lot happier now," he said.

"Once I signed with the Sharks Flano sat me down and said 'we're buying you as a front-rower'.

"Just knowing each week that's where I'll be playing I can always focus on what I need to work on.

"I wasn't getting chopped and changed. It just made life and my footy so much easier."

The narrowed focus inspired an upswing in numbers and lit a fire in Prior's belly.

Origin had previously been a pipe dream for the perennially underrated talent, but he started writing it down as a legitimate goal each pre-season, and his capacity to stay calm in the fiercest of contests soon had him touted as genuine rep potential.

In April he augmented that credibility by climbing out of his hospital bed where he'd been fighting a blood infection to play a decisive role in the Sharks' tight victory over Gold Coast.

And on Tuesday night, when Blues coach Brad Fittler selected him ahead of Ryan James for the Origin II run-on spot vacated by the injured Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Prior earned accolades a decade in the making.

"It's been a massive 24 hours ... I haven't had time to let it all sink in," he said.

"Later in the week or after the game it will sink in what's just happened."