This time last year Blake Ayshford was struggling for NRL game time but this week he returns to his old club re-established as a first-grader for the Vodafone Warriors’ 16th-round encounter with the Cronulla Sharks.
Ayshford (28) had made just three NRL appearances by this stage of the 2015 season and would play only once more before signing with the Vodafone Warriors.
The lanky right edge centre came to Auckland striving to revive an NRL career which took off when he first appeared on the scene for Wests Tigers in 2009.
He impressed the Vodafone Warriors' coaching staff throughout the offseason and in the trials to claim the hotly-contested spot on the right for round one against the Tigers. He has held it ever since, putting together a run of 14 consecutive appearances; only captain Ryan Hoffman and halfback Shaun Johnson match his record.
Ayshford’s experience playing against his first NRL club wasn’t palatable at all on a day when he and his new team-mates suffered at the Tigers’ hands in a 26-34 loss.
After 124 appearances for the Tigers, he played 20 NRL games for the Sharks, enduring their wooden spoon campaign in 2014 but being on the outer as they recovered to play finals football last year.
Returning to Shark Park – now officially known as Southern Cross Group Stadium – he’s expecting plenty of lip from fans in the crowd and former team-mates out in the middle but the challenge is one he’s relishing as the Vodafone Warriors eye the ultimate test of their season so far.
Coming off three straight wins over Brisbane, Newcastle and the Sydney Roosters, they’re now right in the top eight mix with a 7-7 record to sit on 16 points. It's a significant improvement on their predicament after their 12-38 loss to Canberra when they had a 4-7 record and a points differential of minus 80. That has now been improved to minus 24.
Cronulla is in a different league at the moment, riding the crest of a 10-match winning run after losing two of its first three matches of the season.
Ayshford goes into the match with six tries so far, the most he has had in a season since scoring 11 in 2011. He provides steadiness and stability both an attack and defence, his combination quickly building with the gifted David Fusitu’a after initially working with the similarly talented Tuimoala Lolohea.