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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 not them."
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 backline.
"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 Victoria.
"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 breaks.
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 is finalised.
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 things."
- By Michael Burgess