After starring in an Intrust Super Premiership win for the second time in three years, departing Bulldogs five-eighth Josh Cleeland is hoping an NRL dream has not yet passed him by.
Cleeland had a wonderful year with Ipswich in 2015 which led to a one-year deal with Cronulla followed by two years at Belmore.
He has consistently been one of the club's best in the second-tier competition in that time but could not grab a start at the struggling Bulldogs in 2018 despite an injury and form crisis in the club's halves due to his spot outside the club's top 30.
A season-ending injury to Kieran Foran and inconsistent form from Matt Frawley, Jeremy Marshall King and Nu Brown eventually led to a late-season breakout from fourth-string playmaker Lachlan Lewis.
Lewis grabbed his chance with some impressive performances and with it a new deal while Cleeland will be left to hope his two tries, 167 metres and eight tackle busts in a man-of-the-match performance against the Redcliffe Dolphins in the Intrust Super Championship will be enough for another lifeline elsewhere.
Match Highlights: Bulldogs v Dolphins - State Championship
"Josh has been great for the last two years," Bulldogs ISP coach Steve Georgalis said after the 42-18 win.
"It might not be the time to [mention this], but that top 30? I don't get it. For a kid of that talent not to play first grade, even have a crack with one game because of the top 30, I don't understand.
"He should have had a first grade game by now."
Under the current system, the only way a player such as Cleeland outside the top 30 could have earned a start in the NRL this year is if there were no fit available players in his position, regardless of who was playing better when an opportunity arose.
Speaking to NRL.com, Cleeland admitted the situation had been frustrating.
"Yeah I'd say so [that I feel like I've been denied a chance]. I don't know how it all works. When you think you're in and then you're not, I don't know. I just try and focus on my footy," he said.
"I think I have [put a good case forward to get picked]. I've enjoyed my time here, it's a very good club and I'm happy I got to spend two years here, stoked."
He added he was definitely hopeful of getting an NRL start in the near future.
"Obviously first grade is still a dream. It's always going to be a dream and if I get the opportunity it would be unreal but I'll just keep taking every day as it comes and hopefully get the opportunity one day."
He said he has "no idea" where he will be next season.
"I'll Just see what happens. Hopefully my footy can spark something up. If not, it's not meant to be.
"I think [my agent] is already onto that, I'll let him do his thing. I'll kick back and have a rest, it's been a tough year and I'll focus on next year such as it comes and if it doesn't then it's not meant to be.
"I've still got five or six years [of footy in me] but I'm still feeling young and fresh and ready to go."
While Georgalis was frustrated to see Cleeland leave the club without an NRL cap to his name, he was proud the team was able to send Cleeland and fellow departing Bulldog Greg Eastwood off on a winning note.
"It was interesting trying to get the boys up this week [after winning the ISP grand final last week]," Georgalis said.
"We were so happy with the result last week and then realising we had to get ready for this game so it was really, really hard – physically hard – it was a tough game against Newtown.
"I gave them two days off, told them do what you have to do and I'll see you Wednesday."
Georgalis said it was the team's attitude that got them over the line against Redcliffe.
"I just can't say enough about our forwards. Forwards win big matches," he added.