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West Coast Eagles v Brisbane Lions at Subiaco Oval; Dean Cox and Daniel Merrett. Picture: Mal Fairclough 22nd March 2008 *** NOTE FAIRFAX ONLINE OUT UNTIL 11:00PM  EDST ***
WA News / Mal Fairclough West Coast Eagles v Brisbane Lions at Subiaco Oval; Dean Cox and Daniel Merrett. Picture: Mal Fairclough 22nd March 2008 *** NOTE FAIRFAX ONLINE OUT UNTIL 11:00PM EDST ***

Rugby league convert Daniel Merrett has admitted his code-crossing dreams may have been shattered long before now were it not for Leigh Matthews' decision to facilitate a transition from fumbling forward to feared defender.

Once a talented rugby league teenager, Merrett made a surprise switch to Australian Rules and was groomed as a forward in the AFLQ with Southport before being drafted by Brisbane with pick No. 30 in the 2002 national draft. It then took nearly three years to earn his debut, which heralded just four kicks and a goal in round two of 2005.

The hulking redhead kicked 13 goals in 15 games that season, but his fortunes were fading fast with just three goals in nine matches (eight of them losses) the following year.

Often left to wallow in the seconds in 2006, Merrett was contemplating a return to league.

But he said a discussion with coach Matthews and assistant Craig Lambert helped pave a new pathway which had turned him into a consistent key defender.

"I was battling a bit with footy in general," the 24-year-old recalled as he prepared for tonight's cutthroat semifinal against the Western Bulldogs at the MCG.

"I hadn't played too many senior games and the year was getting on as well so they decided to give me a go down back."

Justin Leppitsch, a Lions premiership defender and now an assistant coach, saw Merrett play and said he should make full-back his own.

"It was Leppa's last year and Mal Michael didn't have long left either, so he said there was definitely an opportunity in the team for someone like me," Merrett said.

"I found a rejuvenation in my footy and started enjoying it a lot more and started playing a lot better too.

"It kind of just rolled into place and I found it suited me.

"The great thing about footy is that it gives you the opportunity, and I'm very grateful to the Lions.

"Leigh just showed a bit of belief in me and gave me that opportunity when I probably wasn't playing at a level that would have kept me in the team. Without playing senior football and given the chance, I don't know what would have happened, but he persisted with me and gave me the chance and my confidence grew from there."

Now the vice-captain of a team which has made it into the second week of the finals, Merrett's only goal in the past three seasons came after stealing a handpass against Collingwood in round 18, a sensational snap that he celebrated with the passion of a truly frustrated forward. He would not rule out similar emotions for different reasons tonight.

"I made sure I celebrated because I don't kick too many so I thought I'd make the most of it," he said, even though the Lions lost by 40 points.

"I wouldn't mind a few more celebrations and I've actually spoken to the other defenders about giving it a bit of a celebration when we make a good spoil or something."

Given his testing rise to the top, it is little surprise that Merrett has coveted the prospect of getting his name on his locker for 100 games.

He is just 14 games away from inking his moniker next to club champions such as Wilfred "Chicken" Smallhorn, who won the 1933 Brownlow Medal with the now defunct Fitzroy, and WA star Mark Zanotti.

"It's definitely one of the football goals and I'd love to get my name on the locker," Merrett said. "It's always going to be there for generations to come and it's definitely something I've had my eye on."

Merrett is also a man of many nicknames.

The most obvious, Rog, stems from having the same surname as former Brisbane and Essendon enforcer Roger Merrett, but they are not related.

"I think if I had a biography, it would be called No Relation," he quipped because of the number of times he had been asked about a family link to the 313-game great.

The rest revolve mainly around his shock of red hair. While Strawbs, Big Sauce and several others have stuck at different times, a concerted new push has come from a Brisbane commercial radio station to have him forever known as The Rusty Fist.

"As most redheads do, I've gathered many nicknames along the way," he said. "I do a radio station gig up on the sunny coast and the boys up there started calling me The Rusty Fist.

"They reckon they have board meetings about it and are going to come to games with big Incredible Hulk fists painted orange. It's a bit of good fun."

Merrett was in doubt for Brisbane's first final against Carlton last Saturday night because of a hamstring injury but declared himself ready to fire against the Bulldogs, despite their smaller forward line posing some tricky match-ups for the Lions.

He is likely to tackle resting ruckmen Ben Hudson and Will Minson tonight and could spend time in the ruck himself to give emerging WA star Mitch Clark a rest when needed.

He has only enjoyed one victory in four clashes against the Bulldogs.

"We've got ourselves into a semi-final and the opportunity is there to play in a prelim," he said.

"I know the boys are ready for the challenge."