St George Illawarra recruit Nene MacDonald arrives at a club virtually friendless with pundits and tipsters, almost exclusively billed as a bottom-four finisher in 2017.
But it’s a situation the tall flyer is accustomed to.
MacDonald enjoyed a breakout season on the end of the Gold Coast Titans’ backline that powered the club into the finals against the odds. The club were besieged by off-field controversy and financial problems for the previous 12 months, while their roster was regarded as the NRL’s weakest – exacerbated by Daly Cherry-Evans’ infamous contract back-flip.
That backs-to-the-wall mentality should serve MacDonald well in Wollongong.
“I’m used to it now – it’s good coming in as underdogs and proving people wrong,” the 22-year-old centre/winger told Commentary Box Sports.
“Leaving (the Titans) was the hardest decision, because we came together as a tight group and we had so much against us at the start of the year – favourites for the wooden spoon – and we upset the comp and did well.”
MacDonald inked a three-year deal to join a Dragons outfit desperate for firepower in August, with the Titans unable to compete with the money on offer due to taking on high-profile recruits Konrad Hurrell, Nathan Peats and Jarryd Hayne mid-season.
“So it was tough leaving, but I left for the security I guess.
“The boys were happy for me, because with family and that, everyone understands what it’s like now.”
Port Moresby-born but a Cairns Brothers junior, MacDonald joined the Sydney Roosters as a teenager and made his NRL debut for the defending premiers in 2014 just after his 20th birthday. But the Roosters’ wealth of backline talent forced the tyro to look elsewhere – and the Titans picked him up midway through 2015 after he had played just 11 games in the Tricolours.
MacDonald crossed for four tries in 11 games for the Titans that year, but truly started to realise his potential in 2016, scoring 10 times in 23 appearances.
Playing predominantly on the wing, he was one of the most improved players in the competition, averaging 129 metres per game and busted 58 tackles.
“It was pretty hard leaving the Gold Coast, they gave me an opportunity and I probably wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for them giving me that shot in the NRL for a whole season,” he says.
There’s no regrets yet, however, despite the Titans’ status as a rising force.
“So far, so good,” he says enthusiastically. “The boys at the Dragons are really welcoming and they’ve been pretty good to me so far, so hopefully I’ll stay here for a while.
“It’s been a tough pre-season, probably one of the hardest I’ve done, So hopefully it shows out on the park.
“I’m living in the ’Gong, it’s nice and quiet, a nice little town.”
Tough few days with the boys hardly any sleep over 30kms of walking and boys close to breaking point! Army camp done 👌🏾 @NRL_Dragons
— nene macdonald (@nenemacdonald) January 6, 2017
— The Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) February 16, 2017
It has certainly been an action-packed period for MacDonald, featuring at the Auckland Nines for his club and in the World All Stars line-up on consecutive weekends, while he also had a getaway for Emerging Maroons camp in January.
“We went up to Brisbane with Kevvie (Walters), it was good being up there with the boys and catch up with everyone. It’s a tight-knit group there,” MacDonald says.
— NRL (@NRL) February 8, 2017
The 194cm, 111kg speedster has represented Papua New Guinea in five Tests and will be one of the first players named for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, but MacDonald has his sights set on a Queensland jumper despite competing with the likes of Dane Gagai, Corey Oates, Valentine Holmes and Justin O’Neill for a backline berth.
“I grew up in Cairns, and if you go up there anytime Origin’s on, it’s nuts there.”
For now, though, MacDonald will focus on bolstering an attack that ranked above only wooden-spooners Newcastle last year. The likeable youngster isn’t worried about the expectations being the prized backline recruit for a struggling team entails.
“It’s no such much pressure, I’m more excited for the season.
“It’s been good so far. We’re still tweaking it a bit, (Josh Dugan and Gareth Widdop) came back late after the Four Nations, but after we get all our combos together we should be right by Round 1.”
MacDonald’s versatility should also prove a boon for the Dragons this year. Although slated to start on the wing with Jason Nightingale on the other flank, Josh Dugan at fullback, and Euan Aitken, Taane Milne and Tim Lafai jostling for the centre spots, the aerial specialist can fill jerseys No.1 through 5 with aplomb.
“I grew up playing fullback, centre and then I debuted (in first grade) on the wing.
“I told ‘Mary’ I’ll play anywhere, so whatever best suits the team is where I’ll play. I don’t really have a preference.”
— The Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) February 13, 2017