Penrith Panthers centre Waqa Blake has praised senior teammates Peter Wallace and Trent Merrin for helping him become a better, more professional player.
After debuting in first grade to mediocre reviews last season, the 21-year-old is certainly having a season to remember, and is set to play a major role in Penrith’s Finals campaign beginning next week.
Early season injuries to regular centres Dean Whare and Peta Hiku paved the way for the rangy Fijian to return to the NRL this year and, so far, he’s proving the nasty Twitter trolls wrong.
Speaking with Extra Time on Tuesday, Blake said he’s a much more confident player this year compared to in his rookie season.
“I’ve blown away all those first year cobwebs and this year I’ve been lucky enough to be back in first grade,” he said.
“With the senior group we have now in Peter Wallace and Trent Merrin, they’ve been helping me better my game. I know there’s still a lot to work on but I’m loving the improvement so far.”
After coming through the grades being compared to none other than Greg Inglis, Blake is finally starting to reach his potential – crossing the line six times this year including a try in each of his last four games.
Blake said the biggest improvement he’s made this year is to his professionalism.
“Last year I wasn’t being professional in what I did, not only on the field but off it,” he admitted.
“Off the field now I’m trying my best to give back to the club because I know they give a lot to me. I’m making better decisions.”
Since making his NRL debut in 2015, Blake has been largely criticised by Panthers fans for making mistakes at crucial times in games.
While Blake’s unfortunate errors are still part of his game, he is certainly making up for his mistakes by scoring some scintillating tries.
“Last year I made heaps of errors and wasn’t able to bounce back, but after speaking to a lot of the boys and coaching staff this year, I’ve learned that I can’t let an error get to me anymore,” Blake said.
“I think that advice has really helped me a lot this season – I just have to move past it and owe it back to the team.”
Blake has been named in Penrith’s team to take on the Manly Sea Eagles this Sunday night at Pepper Stadium.
Assuming he gets through the final round unscathed, Blake will line-up the following week in his first NRL Finals match.
And he may even put pressure on Whare and Hiku to regain their spots in Penrith’s starting side for the 2017 season.
Blake said he’s confident the Panthers can shock some teams in the Finals despite their low position.
“The plan is to go all the way,” he said.
“We just need to keep our heads down and worry about what’s in front of us.
“I think we’ll be a tough team to play.”
Nathan Taylor is the Weekender’s Deputy Editor and Senior Sports Writer. He also compiles the weekly Chatter on the Box TV column. Nathan is an award-winning journalist, who has worked at the Weekender for nearly a decade.