ADAM Clune will be the first to tell you, his rugby league journey is different to most.
However, the Albion Park-Oak Flats product wouldn't have it any other way.
Born in Orange, Clune and his brothers Sam and Matt (who's Adam's twin) started their footy careers with the Junee Diesels before his family moved to the South Coast, which saw him join the Eagles.
The now 24-year-old then transitioned into the St George Illawarra Dragons system - primarily the NSW Canterbury Cup setup, which he's played in since 2015.
After a number of injury-riddled years, where he didn't play more than 15 games in each of his first four seasons, Clune broke through in 2019.
The Illawarra Sports High School alumnus produced 28 try-assists and 27 line-break assists in just 22 appearances for the Dragons, seeing him deservedly crowned the competition's Halfback of the Year.
"Obviously it was a great year for me," Clune said.
"The most pleasing aspect of it was stringing some consistency and games together, allowing me to develop combinations with my teammates, which is huge for a halfback like myself.
"I also benefited by playing with a really strong team, that allowed me to play the way I wanted.
"It was a really positive year, which was capped off by some very humbling awards but more importantly a contract with the Dragons."
In November, the Dragons added him to their development squad, seeing the playmaker go through his first full pre-season with the top grade.
"Pre-season was really tough, which they are regardless of what club you play for," he said.
"In previous years, I've had to juggle university [Clune finished his Bachelor of Law and Finance in 2019 at the University of Wollongong] or work with my part-time pre-season training. It was really enjoyable to just totally immerse myself in footy.
"It was great to go in every day, rip in and try to improve my game the best I could and build that foundation for the season ahead.
"Being a part of a group that gets along really well and continues to push each other made it even more fun to be a part of."
Another aspect that shaped Clune during the off-season was his trip to Kenya, where he and his partner Bianca O'Neill volunteered in the village of Yala.
"The whole experience was unreal," he said.
"I had an idea of what it might have been like before I left but once you're over there and immersed in the culture, it was completely eye-opening.
"It gave me a chance to understand how those people live in comparison to our life and not take what we have for granted.
"I'm really big on gratitude and I feel that trip has been beneficial in helping me implement it in other aspects of my life - it's more important to focus on what you do have than what you don't.
"My partner and I are forever thankful for the opportunity and it's an experience I'll never forget."
"Despite the limited game time in those trial matches, I was happy with my performances and to have the opportunity to play at that level," he said.
"Unfortunately, I didn't play in round one of the Canterbury Cup but I was happy with where I was at.
"Coming into the season off the back of an NRL pre-season gave my plenty of confidence for the year ahead."
Before the former Shellharbour Shark had a chance to demonstrate his improvements and build on last season, his 2020 campaign was derailed by the coronavirus.
"The way I approached the situation was everyone was in the same position and there was no point getting down in the dumps because of it," he said.
"As much as I would have loved footy to keep going, decisions were made out of my control and I just had to accept it and move on.
"Before we split up as a club, they encouraged us to use this as an opportunity to improve certain facets of our games.
"Obviously, it was an unfortunate situation for us but there were people much worse off than us.
"During the isolation period, I was able to stay fit and positive thanks to workouts with my teammate Blake Lawrie, who lives around the corner from me and my brother Sam.
"We had a fitness and strength program, which we completed most days - it was great to training with someone and keep each other accountable like that.
"It was a real positive training environment despite it only being us two and that we could only run, lift weights and throw a couple of passes to each other - because of this, it wasn't hard to stay motivated, considering there wasn't much else we were allowed to do during the lockdown.
"It put the whole situation into perspective for me, which in turn was really helpful to my mindset."
Clune and the rest of the Dragons' top 30 squad have been back training at WIN Stadium for more than two weeks, ahead of next weekend's round three clash with the Warriors.
"We probably returned to training earlier than I expected, which was a pleasant surprise," he said.
"It's been great to be back around the boys, constantly pushing each other - although it's quite different than before the lockdown.
"From leaving your shoes at the gate [outside the clean zone] to temperature checks and filling out a questionnaire on an app, on top of constantly changing clothes and showering/sanitising - it all took some adjustment at first but now we've been doing it for a while, it has become second nature.
"Once we're through all that and on the field, all the boys have been ripping in, especially after we've been allowed to restart contact work
"Obviously, it's all been a challenge but all the boys can sense games aren't too far away, seeing the intensity at training constantly at a high level - which I've thoroughly enjoyed."
As coach Paul McGregor can only play 17 of the top 30 each round, Clune appreciates how hotly contested positions will be, especially as the NSW Canterbury Cup season has been cancelled.
"There's not a huge amount of clarity as to what the blokes will do that aren't selected - I've heard a couple of ideas, including a nines concept, thrown around but nothing concrete," he said.
"I don't worry about all that too much though.
"The coaches have told us with the shortened competition, no one's position is guaranteed and you've got to be performing to hold your position.
"While not everyone will get a game each week, it's imperative we all put our best foot forward and trying to get as much as you can out of training, to ensure if your number does get called, you're ready."
As well as learning from the Red V's coaching staff, which also includes Shane Flanagan and Dean Young, the Group Seven junior has thoroughly enjoyed picking the brains of incumbent halves Ben Hunt and Corey Norman.
"I've got a good relationship with Mary [McGregor] and he's always been open and honest with me about my role as a half, in particular being strong in defence and getting my body in front," he said.
"Then with the ball, he wants me to be really loud, direct the team around and make sure my kicking game is consistent - getting those little things right help you make the jump from reserve grade to first grade.
"All of the coaches, as well as Ben and Corey, are constantly giving me feedback about which areas I need to work on, as I'm always open to constructive feedback on how I can improve myself as a player.
"One of the biggest helps for me has been watching film of myself post-training - something I'd never really had the luxury of doing before.
"I've been able to pick up on things myself, which combined with conversations from the coaches, has been really beneficial to my game.
"As a playmaker, I've really enjoyed breaking down my game like that, during full-time training."
Clune admits he is in a "good spot", as his career trajectory continues to ascend, but appreciates he still has plenty of hard work left to grab that elusive first grade debut - which has been the goal all along.
"I'd like to think I'm not too far away from that level," Clune, whose contract runs until the end of 2020, said.
"I've now made the step into the first grade squad and understand there are two quality halves in front of me - both who I've thoroughly enjoyed learning from.
"If an opportunity pops up, I know Mary will have the confidence to not only pick me but also that I can do a job for the team.
"I've always been driven to play rugby league at the highest level I can and the past couple of years, that hasn't been my focus, as I wasn't in the top squad.
"Now I am in the top squad one of my main focuses this year is to make my debut.
"Obviously my journey has been different to a lot of others, especially as I'm a little older than most guys in my position.
"If it [a NRL debut] were to happen, it would be unreal to challenge myself at the highest level and achieve a life long dream.
"Until then though, it's up to me to continue to train as hard as I can and build that respect around the group.
"Because as a half, you've got to have complete faith from your teammates if you are to succeed at the highest level."