”I’ve been waiting a long time for this jumper”: Nathan Merritt. Photo: James BrickwoodHe will probably frame it and hang it on his wall, provided he can keep his mother from taking it. The NSW jumper that is 30 years, 31 days, 213 NRL matches, and 148 tries in the making.

”I’ve been waiting a long time for this jumper,” Nathan Merritt says.

Has he waited too long for it? It’s a question many have asked. If they’d asked him back when the colour of his skin was being identified as a reason for his inability to play Origin football, he might have said yes. Ask him now, though, and he answers differently. While so many campaigned for his selection, he says now he wasn’t ready.

”To be overlooked over all those years … I probably wasn’t ready for it back then,” Merritt said.

He wasn’t ready, Merritt now believes, until coach Michael Maguire brought not only a hard edge to the South Sydney squad, but to Merritt’s game; older, wiser, and tougher mentally and physically.

”My game’s progressed since I’ve been with him,” Merritt said. ”I just wasn’t mature enough. I’ve got a better understanding of the game now. I’ve got that understanding of why I didn’t get picked back then. I understand they wanted bigger bodies, the right players. I think I’m capable of filling that void now. I don’t care about the past.

”It’s all about the future, looking forward, for me now. I don’t really care about what happened in the past, why I didn’t get picked. It’s all a blur to me now anyway. It doesn’t matter. I’m just happy I’m here. To get a chance to prove to myself and prove to other people that I can play Origin football … I’m going to put my body on the line to help the boys win the game.”

The circumstances are unfortunate but do not dilute Merritt’s elation. He replaced Blake Ferguson, who was originally chosen in the squad but was dumped after being charged with indecent assault. ”If I’m the second choice, it doesn’t bother me. I’m still here,” he said. ”I get a chance to play for the Blues. It’s taken me 10 years or so to get here, I don’t want to let it go now.”

Merritt will become not only the sixth oldest NSW debutant, but the first Souths player to make a NSW squad since Craig Wing in 2009; another Rabbitohs junior done good and playing in Blue.

Merritt is an archetypal Redfern boy playing for the local club; he played the last six minutes as an 18-year-old in the Charity Shield of 2002 – the club’s first game after being banished from and then reinstated to the competition – and he has been reduced to tears on the team bus regaling to his teammates why he loves the club.

But he has not always been a South Sydney player.

He had two seasons at Cronulla, having not enjoyed a good relationship with the Souths administration. Perhaps with good reason: ”I was a bit young and stupid back then,” he said.

At Cronulla, he played with Greg Bird and Paul Gallen, two of his now NSW teammates. He says that stint turned his life around, having taken many things for granted in his early years at Souths. He has since become one of the best finishers in the game, a player who famously topped the try-scoring tally in a season his team took out the wooden spoon, possessing the speed, verve and swerve to be a wonderful NRL player, but not necessarily the traits of a State of Origin player. Until now.

The ”leaving it late” theme is even echoed in the way he was told of his selection. Club officials and his family were informed before him, as they scrambled to find him. Souths football manager Mark Ellison finally found him during a Pilates session in the club’s training facilities, having gone to Merritt’s home to try to find him (he had left his phone in the dressing rooms). His partner Faith knew before Merritt did. So did his father Tony, who Faith called when she could not find Nathan. When Ellison finally found him, a party suddenly erupted in the Pilates session, as Matt King, Dylan Farrell, Bryson Goodwin and others mobbed him. His dad quickly found him. ”I’ve never seen him like that, never seen that look in my career,” Merritt said.

It didn’t take long for him to hear from his South Sydney teammate but opponent on Wednesday night, Queensland centre Greg Inglis, who texted him to say how proud he was that Merritt had hung in there and had never given up. A ”brotherly text” is how Merritt described it. It is clear that this selection is a big deal for many more people than Merritt, who was forced to find 25 tickets for parents, kids, uncles, aunts and his partner – ”a little blue spot in the stadium”.

The truth is, though, Merritt had all but given up, admitting he was ”shocked” by his call-up.

”It’s pretty overwhelming,” he said. ”I couldn’t believe it was true. To put all the gear on, that’s when it finally sinks in, knowing that I’m here to represent my state and play for the Blues. It’s something that I never thought I’d get a chance to do. I’ve been playing for 11 years now – I definitely thought my time was gone. To finally get rewarded with selection, it was a beautiful moment in my life and my career, and is something I’m always going to remember.

”Just being around the best players that NSW have got, it’s an honour.” At 30, he is one of them.

And he is ready. ”Absolutely,” Merritt said. ”If I’m not ready now, I never will be.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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