Ryan James is adamant the Canberra Raiders "can really go to another level" and there could be no better place to do it than Sydney's west on Friday night.
Concern is growing about the widening gulf between the NRL's best and the rest but there will be no such worries when the Raiders travel to face the Penrith Panthers in a primetime showdown this week.
The ladder-leading Panthers have conceded 16 points through four games and scored 110. The Raiders have given up 60 and scored 93, but Canberra prop James is confident his side has plenty left in the tank leading into the NRL's toughest assignment.
"We haven't even put in an 80-minute performance yet. We've put in a couple of good halves, and our defence has probably won us a lot of games," James said.
"Once we really connect and start to do the things we're supposed to do, we can really go to another level. It's just a matter of figuring out everything and making sure everyone knows the plays, and just doing it. If you can not play your best footy and win, you're doing something right.
"We've got Origin players in our team. It's great to have that depth and confidence in our depth. Both [Corey Horsburgh and Corey Harawira-Naera] and Emre [Guler], they've played in grand finals.
"Having that experience, they'll be pushing for spots. We just have to keep winning games and people are going to be fighting for spots."
The fight is never easy. Ricky Stuart has been around the game long enough to know "there are more bad times than good times in rugby league".
Which is why the Raiders coach pulled Josh Papalii aside last week and told him he'd be starting on the bench against the Gold Coast Titans, opening the door for James to start against his former club.
It was a matter of respect, says the Raiders coach, and one that has certainly not gone unnoticed by 29-year-old James four games into his tenure at the Green Machine.
"It means a lot that he thinks about little things like that, the respect around it and knowing it was something I would have wanted to do," James said.
"It was very weird, I'd never played against the old club. I played footy up there for a long time. It was great to get the win, nothing more sweet than that.
"I've grown up with a lot of them and seen a lot of them come through the ranks. They're all still my mates. All the coaches and staff, they're all amazing people and I love them all. It was really weird playing against them actually, it was something you don't think about until you have to do it.
"I'm feeling really confident with a couple of games under the belt. I'm just enjoying playing footy again, it has been a long time in between games."
A long time is something of an understatement. James was forced to wait almost two years between NRL appearances after successive anterior cruciate ligament injuries threatened to derail his career.
Now he forms a key part of a Raiders pack that certainly didn't lose any punch when Papalii shuffled back to the bench, with the State of Origin enforcer still leading the side's forwards for run metres.
"I'm really pleased for Ryan getting a bit of continuity in his game because of the bad luck he has had over the past two seasons," Stuart said.
"Him and his wife Hannah and the kids have moved to Canberra and really bought in, they've really made it home. He's a big part of the club now. As much as you can welcome a player to the club, a lot of that happens through your own buy in and your own way of getting into the culture and the club itself.
"He has worked really hard to earn his spot in first grade and he is doing a really good job.
"It can be a really brutally tough game at times. There are more bad times than good times in rugby league. He has had some real bad times over the years so I'm really happy for him to be enjoying some footy now."
NRL ROUND FIVE
Friday: Penrith Panthers v Canberra Raiders at Panthers Stadium, 7.55pm.
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