As part of an NRL.com series on players aiming for a bounce-back season, Troy Whittaker examines how Euan Aitken can get back in the Origin selection conversation.
Only a few years ago, Euan Aitken was at the top of his game and a genuine NSW State of Origin centre candidate.
He started 2018 on fire, as did his team - St George Illawarra, but James Roberts was instead given the Origin nod by Brad Fittler in a closely contested selection race.
When Aitken memorably stood up South Sydney champion Greg Inglis and brushed him aside to score early that season, the young outside back appeared destined for the representative arena.
But the Dragons have been in decline since and Aitken has perhaps suffered from being in a struggling side.
Having now joined the Warriors - a club seemingly on the rise after their inspirational efforts amid extreme adversity in 2020 and a recruitment spree - Aitken is poised to shine again.
The 25-year-old has admitted he wasn't at his best in 2019, though he pointed out he didn't get as many attacking opportunities, and if he can continue last season's improved performances, he could be just what the Warriors need out wide.
"I think the [Warriors] squad we've got here can hopefully turn in some good footy, and obviously when the team's playing well, players usually well play too," Aitken told reporters in January.
"I'm looking forward to the couple years I've got at the Warriors [signed until end of 2023] and I'm happy that I'm here."
Maybe he was overlooked due to St George Illawarra's shoddy form, but Aitken averaged 150 metres per game - the most of his six-season career - with Newcastle's Bradman Best (153.4m per game) being the only specialist centre ranked above Aitken in this aspect.
Best played 11 matches compared to Aitken's 17, and the latter consistently dented defences with his powerful running.
In 2018, Aitken averaged only 114m per game, although there were more Dragons players around him contributing strongly every week.
The Shellharbour Sharks junior averaged the fourth-most metres for his team in 2020, behind winger Jordan Pereira (167.8m), prop Paul Vaughan (153.1) and fullback Matt Dufty (151.5).
That was despite Aitken missing selection for the first two games and then coming off the interchange in rounds three and four.
Elsewhere, Aitken produced his highest tackle-efficiency rate so far with 91.33 percent, missing just 15 tackles all year.
Hunt puts Aitken into space
He hadn't tackled with such efficiency since his debut season in 2015, where he had a percentage of 89.31% after 23 appearances.
Aitken's tally of four tries last year was his lowest to date, but that may improve if he's given clean ball in a competitive team.
A change in scenery and a new coach in Nathan Brown could reinvigorate Aitken, who hails from the Illawarra and came through the Dragons system, and push him back towards rep honours.
There's still areas that need improvement - setting up his wingers more often is one, having only recorded two try assists last season - but at his age Aitken has plenty of upside.
Warriors in 2021
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