Danny Levi is tired of having sand kicked in his face.
After just 11 wins from a 66-game career in four NRL seasons with the Newcastle Knights, the 23-year-old New Zealand international senses the tide is about to turn.
Levi has put months of speculation about his own future behind him, staved off a challenge from off-season recruit Kurt Mann, and coach Nathan Brown has named him at No.9 for Newcastle's season-opener against Cronulla at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night.
Packing down on either side of him will be seasoned internationals David Klemmer and James Gavet, who joined the Knights in the off-season from the Bulldogs and Warriors respectively.
Another hard-headed recruit, premiership-winning former Storm prop Tim Glasby, will be the other starting middle forward, and Daniel Saifiti and Mitch Barnett will rotate with them off the bench.
Former Broncos prop Herman Ese'ese, one of the Knights' most consistent forwards last season, could not crack it for a spot in the 17 for round one, such is the depth in the Newcastle pack in 2019.
Jacob Saifiti will also be available for selection soon after breaking his leg in a well-documented off-field incident outside a Hamilton hotel in December.
"When I first came into first grade, we never really had a big pack," Levi told NRL.com.
"We were always on the back foot and we used to get bullied a lot, but now we've got these big boys; these big boppers with a lot of experience.
"They know how to get quick play the balls and I find one of my strengths in my game is my running game, so they're going help me do that and make me a better player."
The Sharks have been a particularly tough nut to crack. Levi has an 0-7 record in games against Cronulla since 2015 as the Sharks have out-scored the Knights by a collective 259-90.
Of the 17 players named to line up against the Sharks on Friday, Levi and back-rowers Sione Mata'utia and Lachlan Fitzgibbon are the only three who have endured the ignominy of three straight wooden spoon-seasons with the Knights from 2015 to 2017.
Levi feels they have emerged from that initiation to be battle-hardened and better for the experience.
"There's more of a belief now, knowing that we're definitely first-grade quality," Levi said.
"I feel like the teams we were in before, it was a difficult time and we weren't quite up there yet, but we definitely have no excuses now.
"We know we're able to compete, and we classify ourselves as first-grade players."
He has also dealt with competition and challenges from within the castle walls.
Levi, who is contracted to the Knights until the end of 2020, sought a release from that deal midway through last season but the club declined. Then last November, the Newcastle Herald reported that the Knights would consider letting him go if he asked to be, but that never eventuated.
"If he came to us and wanted permission to negotiate [with other clubs], we would probably look favourably on that, I would think," Knights player-list manager Troy Pezet told the Newcastle Herald on November 19.
"I'm not saying we would, but if he had an opportunity to play with someone else, we'd certainly have a conversation with his agent about that."
The off-season acquisition of Mann from the Dragons applied even more pressure on Levi to keep his spot at dummy-half but he accepted the challenge and used it as motivation to get better.
"I definitely took all that to heart, I do admit," he said.
"When there were talks around that, it just made me want to prove to them that I'm your man and I'm here to stay and get the job done for you."
Levi has trained the house down all summer, impressing Brown and the club's coaching staff, and is itching to run on to his home ground on Friday night in front of an anticipated opening-night crowd of more than 20,000.
"This pre-season has definitely been my best pre-season," he said.
"I'm feeling fitter, faster, stronger, and it was definitely one of the longest pre-seasons I've been involved in – it felt like it went on forever – but just all the quality players we've brought in, they've definitely lifted the levels of the sessions that we train at now.
"Because the pre-season has gone on so long, I just can't wait for round one to come around."
Match: Knights v Sharks
Round 1 -
Venue: McDonald Jones Stadium
- LIVE PASS