Sam Walker is better than Andrew Johns at the same age, Phil Gould believes, though he’s worried long-term.
Sam Walker is better than Andrew Johns at the same age, Phil Gould believe’All I can say is wow’s, though the legendary coach is worried about the long-term effects of the teen halfback’s early entry to NRL football.
Walker was thrown into first grade at age 18 this season after injuries to Roosters halves Luke Keary and Lachie Lam. His form has been outrageous; he has nine try assists and three tries from his first five games.
Walker has long been tagged as a potential superstar and has so far lived up to the billing.
“All I can say is wow. Wow,” Gould said on 100% Footy.
“It’s not the skill set but at 18 years of age, to have absolutely no hesitation in what he does. There’s no second-guessing, there’s nothing conservative about him.
“That one (a weekend Roosters try against the Knights) where he picks up the ball and kicks it to his winger across here, he doesn’t think for a second if I’m doing the right or the wrong thing, or should I seek permission or what have you.
“It’s just so instinctive to him. These kids have got no fear and no hesitation.
“I’ve seen kids with the skillset but to come into the NRL, there’s like a period of asking for permission before I can do all these things and can I impose myself on the game.
“He’s just come in and imposed himself on the contest at every play. It’s like he’s playing under-18s.
“Joey wasn’t like that at the start of his career at all. His career built as he came along.
“The one thing I compared it to was Greg Alexander, who I think at 19 years of age came in and took the Panthers to maybe their first-ever semi-finals series. I remember him having an immediate impact and he was Dally M player and halfback of the year several times over before he’d turned 21, 22.
“Greg Alexander had a massive impact, that was back in the 80s. This is a completely different era, completely different style of football.
“It’s just the brashness of it [from Walker], the confidence of it, that he just doesn’t hesitate. Whatever you’ve been seeing him do in under-16s and under-18s – we’ve all been watching it, he’s been on the horizon for a while – he’s just walked into first grade and done it.”
Yet Gould also voiced concerns about Walker’s longevity. There have been mixed outcomes among halfbacks who made their NRL debut at age 20 or below in recent years.
Tim Smith played a phenomenal season for the Parramatta Eels after debuting in 2005, winning the Dally M Rookie of the Year award after notching a league record 40 try assists. Yet he was finished at the Eels by 2008 and out of the NRL for good in 2011, aged 26.
Ash Taylor debuted for the Broncos at 20 then won the 2016 Dally M Rookie of the Year gong for the Titans, beating Nathan Cleary. He has since struggled to handle the pressure of being a $1 million per season star.
Mitchell Pearce debuted in the NRL for the Roosters in 2007 just before turning 19, going on to win a premiership in 2013 amid a career spanning 301 games that is ongoing. Cleary and Walker will aim to emulate his longevity.
“I don’t know but I want to see what it looks like in 10 or 12 years’ time when he (Walker) is 30. I want to see what the early start does to them,” Gould said.
“It’s the same with Nathan Cleary. I agonised over the decision to let Nathan play first grade at 18 years of age.
“He went and had one reserve grade game and handled it so easily, we allowed him to go to first grade and he’s never gone back, he’s never looked like going backwards.
“But I wonder what it looks like at 30 years of age because so many players from my era that came in as brash and exciting young teenagers were gone by 30. They’d worn themselves out.”
For now, the sky is the limit for Walker. The teen will reportedly be welcomed into the Queensland camp to experience a State of Origin build-up during this year’s series.
Queensland legend Billy Slater, now a Maroons selector, said that Walker looked like a long-term star at Origin level.
“It’s obvious Sam Walker’s going to be a generation-type player and he’s probably going to hold down that No.7 for Queensland for a decade after Daly Cherry-Evans moves on,” Slater, who debuted in the NRL at 19, told Wide World of Sports radio.
Former Test forward Paul Gallen, who debuted for the Sharks in 2001 at age 19, said that Walker would have to handle increased workloads as a modern player. Gallen played more than 400 matches across his NRL and representative career before retiring at the end of 2019.
“Especially the way the game is now, with the amount of training, the amount of k’s they do at training, you do wonder when they come out at 18 years-old are they going to be done by the time they’re 28, 29,” Gallen said on 100% Footy.
“It could be a concern but five weeks in, he’s done it every week. Week-in, week-out, he just keeps getting better.”
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