MITCH Barnett hasn't taken a backward step since he arrived at the Newcastle Knights in 2016, and he has no intention of doing so now, as he prepares to go head-to-head with two of his most respected rivals.
Against St George Illawarra in Mudgee on Sunday, Barnett will line up directly opposite NSW Origin back-rower Tariq Sims.
Five days later, he is set to mark NSW and Kangaroos skipper Boyd Cordner when the Knights host Sydney Roosters at McDonald Jones Stadium.
"Playing against Origin players, you know they're going to turn up every game," Barnett told the Newcastle Herald.
"That's the difference between them and regular first-graders. They don't have many lapses.
"So it's a big challenge and an exciting one. Tariq's a great player, but I came up against him in our trial and I thought I handled myself really well.
"If I can get a repeat of that, I'll be happy."
Competition clearly brings out the best in the 25-year-old from Wingham, who now has 65 NRL games to his name, including all nine this season.
Before as ball was kicked in 2019, he prepared for a dogfight with teammates Lachlan Fitzgibbon, Sione Mata'utia and Aidan Guerra for a back-row position.
When Knights coach Nathan Brown named him to start the season on the bench, he was disappointed, but responded by forcing his way into the starting side two weeks later.
"I had a chat with Browny at the start of the pre-season, and I knew it was going to be harder than ever this season to get a spot," he said.
"He put the pressure on me to really rip in and put my best foot forward. So I trained my backside off in the pre-season and thought I played OK in the trials.
"I started the year on the bench, but I knew I was doing all the right things, on and off the field, and I was confident my time would come.
"Defensively I've been happy with the way I've been going, but you can always do things better on both sides of the ball.
"Definitely I'd like to get my hands on a bit more ball, but as long we're winning games, that's the main thing."
After three straight wins - a feat he also managed in 2017 - Barnett is eyeing uncharted territory against the Dragons.
"We'd like to get four this weekend, to give us some momentum heading into the Roosters," he said.
"I think three wins in a row is the best me and some of the other boys have managed in the NRL, so we'd love to get to four and then look for five. But we just have to take it week by week and focus on the Dragons this week."