ANDREW McCullough has waited long enough to play State of Origin, so he can cope with another two years living in the shadow of Maroons skipper Cameron Smith.
Since bursting onto the scene as an 18-year-old at the Broncos in 2008, the good judges have been whispering about McCullough.
Next big thing. Future Origin hooker. The successor to Smith.
It seemed almost pre-ordained; a mere matter of time before McCullough stepped into the Queensland No.9 jumper made famous by the likes of Steve Walters, Greg Conescu and Smith.
But almost a decade since making his top-grade debut, McCullough is still waiting.
It is less a reflection of his ability and more a tribute to the greatness of Smith, who will this season become the first player in State of Origin’s 37-year history to chalk up a staggering 40 appearances.
But with the legendary Maroons rake eyeing retirement at the end of 2018, the coveted No.9 jumper will be up for grabs for the first time in 15 years.
There will be no shortage of ambitious aspirants.
In the past two years, hookers Jake Granville and Nathan Friend have trumped McCullough to win selection in Queensland’s Emerging Origin squad, but the Broncos rake is hellbent on claiming his maiden Maroons jumper.
“I’d be lying to say I didn’t want to play Origin,” said McCullough, who celebrated his 200th NRL game against Canberra in round four.
“You put your body through so much in the NRL and you watch Origin on TV and think, ‘Oh, if only I could do it’.
“I really believe if you do the hard work, you deserve what you get in this game.
“People talk about luck, but there’s not much luck involved in playing NRL and achieving higher honours.
“If you work hard, you’ll put yourself in a position to play State of Origin … and I’m working as hard as ever.”
Ironically, it was the competitive threat of Smith that provided the ultimate wake-up call for the 27-year-old tackling machine.
In 2013, McCullough was rocked by speculation the Broncos were attempting to poach Smith from the Storm.
Brisbane upped the ante, tabling a formal offer, and if Smith signed, it would have been the end for McCullough at Red Hill.
It was a sliding doors moment. Smith eventually rejected the Broncos and inked a four-year deal with Melbourne. McCullough breathed a sigh of relief.
But those uncertain months taught McCullough a crucial lesson. He would never again take his spot at the Broncos for granted.
“I’ve had some tough times at the Broncos but everything happens for a reason,” he told fogs.com.au.
“In that off-season when Cam Smith could have come here, that was the hardest I’ve ever trained.
“I came back for the new season (in 2014) in great shape. I just shut myself away, didn’t talk to the media and promised to be a better player.
“That was the one positive that came out of it for me and I’m glad I’ve been able to secure my future here.”
It would be sensible to suggest Smith was McCullough’s idol, but it was a former Queensland winger – not a hooker – that left him starry-eyed as a Dalby junior.
“Growing up, my hero was Brett Dallas,” McCullough says with a laugh.
“I remember being a five-year-old kid on a cold winter’s night in Dalby, sitting there in front of TV with Dad and seeing Brett Dallas run the length of the field to win an Origin game.
“It was the 1995 series when Queensland won against the odds (with Paul Vautin as coach) and from then on, I just wanted to wear that Maroon jumper.
“Whether that happens or not is out of my control but I still love waking up every Monday morning and getting ready for training.
“If you are still thinking like that after 200 games, that’s a pretty good sign I reckon.”