After making his debut almost halfway into the 2010 season in Rd 10, Gardner has been a breath of fresh air for a Sharks side that is going through a re-building phase of their own, with Gardner continually standing out as a part of their core.
His style of play has some comparing him to QLD fullback, and perhaps the best fullback in the NRL right now, in Billy Slater.
In order to better his own game, Gardner admits that he watches a mountain of footage on Billy Slater, in regards to how he does things on the football field, and he tries to adapt them into his own game, as he strives to continually get better over the course of his career.
“I’ve sat down and have done a lot on Billy with my assistant coach,” Gardner said.
“It’s just his support play and the way he gets himself around the footy every tackle. He is never walking, he is always right on the ball and always in the right positions. He does great things in attack but people don’t notice some of the stuff he does off the ball in defence, so mainly it’s his support play and work off the ball.”
Whilst Gardner, much like every other NRL fullback has their own style, and their own implementations, for Gardner, he mixes the styles as best he can into his own game, as well as being familiar with the styles of opposition fullbacks.
“A lot of the players I play against now, I remember sitting at home watching them when I was a little kid and they were my favourite players. I always wanted to play like them but I never thought I’d get to play against them,” he said.
“The main one is Billy Slater and his involvement in games. It’s going to be tough this week too playing Matty Bowen â€“ he is one of the best fullbacks that has played the game.
“I do watch a lot of fullbacks. I try not to copy too much of their games and keep my own style but there are still a lot of things I can look at and put in my game to help me be a better fullback.”
The talent that Gardner possesses is great, and even NSW coach Ricky Stuart has been watching his exploits in season 2011.
Despite Gardner being somewhat down the order in relation to NSW Fullbacks, he said that the chance to be a part of the Blues-in-waiting squad, was a great experience, and caught his eye.
“I think it just gave me a lot more confidence that maybe down the track they see me as a representative player,” he said.
“The biggest thing for me was confidence, especially coming into my second year of footy. I just wanted to concentrate on playing first grade but it gives you a chance to reset goals.”
Despite his form though, and perhaps being the in-form NSW fullback so far this year, he is ruling out any shock inclusion in the first Origin game next month.
“No, definitely not â€“ there are a lot of good fullbacks around,” said Gardner.
. “I have no idea what it would be like to play that sort of footy but I would always tell myself that I’d be able to play in any sort of footy that I would get picked in. But you know, I just want to concentrate on helping the Sharks at first grade level.”
Whilst many young players suffer from the dreaded syndrome that exists in NRL circles, the second-year syndrome – Gardner seems to have missed it completely, as he shows no signs of slowing down.
“Last year I exceeded every expectation I had set for myself,” Gardner said.
“A lot of people did talk to me about second-year syndrome but I’ve got a lot of good people around me that keep me level headed and keep me working hard. I always had confidence in myself that it’s a bit of a myth I think.
“You’ve just got to keep working hard and if you do have a bad game or a couple of bad games you can’t talk yourself into that second-year syndrome thing. It’s only early but hopefully I can keep playing consistent footy.”
As for the future, Gardner sees himself with the Sharks, and is confident that the Sharks are building towards the start of a special ride together.
“Me and the halves would like to think that they’re going to stick with us young guys and really try and build a good combination for the next few years to come,” he said.
“It gives you a lot of confidence that we’re only young but they’ve thrown us in there and are telling the boys to lead us around the park. â€˜Flanno’ (coach Shane Flanagan) is telling me to get more involved and I tried to be a bit more of a ball-player in the off-season. He spoke to me about trying to be a bit more dominant with the ball.
“It’s a bit hard at times when you’ve got Paul Gallen or Kade Snowden demanding the footy and you’re trying to get it off them but I suppose the longer it goes on the more comfortable I’m getting.”