Dane Nielsen has always been the kind of player opposition
fans love to hate.
Recognised as one of the best defenders in league, Nielsen
can spend long periods of matches "living" in the opposition
backline and tends to squeeze the flair players on the
opposing team out of the game.
That was amply demonstrated in the grand final this year,
when the wide-running game of the Bulldogs was drowned by the
Storm's blanket defence. Nielsen was a principal component
throughout, crowding out the blue-and-whites and often
arriving to make the tackle at the same time as a pass.
"Line speed is a big key for me and something I will continue
to work on for the rest of my career," says Nielsen. "The
less time you can give your opposing centre, second rower or
fullback, the more advantage it is for you. The quicker I can
get up and cut their time down puts me on the front foot and
It's an approach that Warriors' fans will learn to love,
especially if it helps to remedy the team's defensive issues
out wide. It's too early to be talking about leadership roles
at the club but Nielsen will be expected to set the example -
and defensive platform - among the many young players in the
"I base my game around defence and that was a huge part of
the Storm's game," says Nielsen. "I learned to be a much
better defensive centre there. You just don't make Melbourne
teams if you can't tackle."
The seeds were sown in his first pre-season under Craig
Bellamy - a "brutal" learning experience, he says - and he
blossomed from there. Which was just as well, as Nielsen came
close to being another promising kid who didn't make it.
He grew up in Mackay, a north Queensland town almost 1000km
north of Brisbane that has also produced Daly-Cherry Evans,
Josh Hoffman, Ben Barba and Cathy Freeman. Nielsen was
spotted by the late Barry Gomersall, a former Origin referee
of the 1980s who was nicknamed "Grasshopper" and become
almost as recognisable as the players in the iconic series.
Gomersall, then president of the Mackay Norths Devils club,
had seen Nielsen as a junior and recommended him to Cronulla.
The move to the Sutherland shire wasn't a success. He
struggled to settle in Sydney and played just one first grade
game for the Sharks in three years. Luckily for Nielsen,
Bellamy saw enough in the then 22-year-old to bring him to
"It didn't really click for me at Cronulla and that is how
things happen sometimes," says Nielsen. "At Melbourne I
seemed to get what they were about and understood what they
were looking for and the style of defence they wanted. It
suited me and and I guess I suited them."
The rest is history. Nielsen has played in two grand finals
(2009 and 2012) and made the Queensland State of Origin side
on three occasions. Everyone associated with the Warriors
hopes that he can bring a bit of the Storm systems and
secrets to Mt Smart, but he says it is all about preparation
and pure hard work.
"At the Storm, we found that all the big plays come back
through doing all the little things right," says Nielsen. "We
prepared really well for that grand final. Without sounding
too cocky, we had sort of won it in the weeks leading up to
it. I think we only had four or five dropped balls the entire
week leading into the grand final. Defensively, we knew how
we wanted to go about it and luckily enough it paid off for
us on the Sunday afternoon."
War stories abound of the Storm approach, whether it is the
infamous boot camps in the off-season (where players are
limited to five or six hours sleep a night for several days)
or their professional approach to training, where they even
have a custom of running to their water bottles during
Apart from a trip to Cancun with several other Storm players
where they "partied up hard", Nielsen has spent most of the
off season back home in Mackay. He has taken time to indulge
his love for fishing (his proudest haul was a 19kg trevally
in caught in Fiji that took 40 arm-wrenching minutes to reel
in) and along with fellow local Ben Barba acted as a water
boy for the Mackay Stallions indigenous team. He has found a
house in an Auckland city fringe suburb, but will be living
at fellow Queenslander Jacob Lillyman's place until paperwork
It's only been a week but he reports that pre-season training
so far has been "very solid".
"You need a good work ethic and fitness base to get through a
full season of NRL," says the 27-year-old. "We have got a
couple of camps coming up which will be tough but it is all
for the better."
After playing in the large shadows of Cameron Smith, Billy
Slater and Cooper Cronk at the Storm, Nielsen comes to
Auckland as a marquee player but is relaxed about the
pressure that brings.
"I want to do my role for this team on attack and defence and
I'm looking forward to the challenge of a new club," says
Nielsen. "In terms of my football, nothing is going to
change. I'm not going to go out and try to score five tries a
game or do anything that I am not used to. Whatever comes
along the way I'll deal with, whether good or bad but I'm not
going to change too much."
"He is only a young guy and has his best football in front of
him," says Warriors coach Matt Elliott. "He is right up there
with his defensive game but I certainly feel like there is
little bit more room to jump up on the offensive side of
- By Michael Burgess