MARK LEVY: We may have found the latest cult hero in rugby league, already dubbed the ‘Mullet Man from Minchinbury’.
Mark Levy is the host of 2GB’s Wide World of Sports radio show. Tune in from 6pm-7pm, Monday to Thursday!
We may have found the latest cult hero in rugby league, who’s already being dubbed the ‘Mullet Man from Minchinbury’.
You’d be forgiven for thinking legendary trainer Ronnie Palmer had pulled on the boots at WIN Stadium or tennis legend Boris Becker had made the switch to rugby league when you first saw Zac Cini warming up with his Wests Tigers teammates.
It ended up being a day the 20-year-old will never forget.
Cini was called into the squad to replace James Roberts for the match against the St George Illawarra Dragons and it wasn’t long before his family and friends were making plans to fill a section of the grandstand at the southern end of the ground.
The TV cameras zoomed in on them after the red-headed winger pounced on a loose-ball, only to be denied by the bunker just after half-time. It wasn’t long before Daine Laurie threw a pass that put Cini over in the corner, right in front of his mates.
The locals are saying it’s the biggest cheer in Wollongong since another cult hero, Mark ‘Piggy’ Riddell, jumped the fence to applaud his own try in 2002.
What a moment for the young bloke, who grew up in the Penrith Panthers junior system but dreamed of playing for Wests Tigers and following in the footsteps of his childhood hero Benji Marshall after watching him in the 2005 Grand Final.
Cini also looked up to Robbie Farah, who presented the ‘Mullet Man’ with his debut jersey in the sheds on Sunday.
These moments last a lifetime and they should be celebrated by everyone in rugby league.
It got me thinking about some of the other memorable debuts in the NRL and names like Andrew Johns, Billy Slater, Sonny Bill Williams, Chris Sandow, Luke Brooks and Charlie Staines automatically spring to mind.
A star was born when the eighth Immortal played his first game as a 19-year-old for the Newcastle Knights in their season opener against South Sydney in 1994. ‘Joey’ scored 23 points with two tries, seven goals and a field goal as the Knights prevailed 43-14.
Johns went on to become one of the greatest players we’ve ever seen and finished his career with two premierships in 1997 and 2001, playing a record 249 games for the Knights.
Billy Slater made a name for himself in Melbourne’s 2003 season opener against Cronulla at Shark Park, where ‘Billy the Kid’ inspired the Storm’s biggest comeback in club history. They were trailing 22-0 when a 19-year-old Slater scored a 60-metre try after scooting out of dummy-half.
Slater retired a one-club player who featured in seven grand finals, 323 NRL games, 31 matches for Queensland and 30 Tests for Australia.
Sonny Bill Williams proved a towering enforcer for the Canterbury Bulldogs in their 2004 premiership-winning season. At 18, the talented Kiwi scored a try and set up another as the Dogs kicked off their campaign with a 48-14 win over the Parramatta Eels.
Sonny Bill became a Kiwi International and one of only 21 players to have won multiple Rugby World Cups.
Chris Sandow burst onto the scene in 2008 for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who were sitting at the bottom of the ladder. The little halfback kicked the winning field goal for the Bunnies in the 35-28 win over the Warriors in Auckland, their first across the ditch since 1999.
Sandow finished his debut season by winning the Dally M Rookie of the Year Award and went on to play for Parramatta, before moving to the English Super League.
Luke Brooks turned back the clock at the traditional home of rugby league in 2013, as the No.7 guided Wests Tigers to a stunning 34-18 win over St George Illawarra. The 18-year-old set up two tries and scored one of his own as the Tigers spoiled the Dragons’ 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1963 Grand Final.
Brooks has played 155 games for Wests Tigers and was named in the NYC Team of the Year in his breakout season.
You’ve then got the teenager from Forbes, NSW, who put on a show at Kogarah for his mates who swapped positions to see Charlie Staines score four tries on debut. The 19-year-old became the first player to score four tries in his first game since Jordan Atkins in 2008.
Staines has become an important part of the Panthers, who won 17 in a row last year to claim the JJ Giltinan Shield as minor premiers. They remain unbeaten in 2021.
I’m constantly amazed by the skill, maturity and athleticism of these brilliant teenagers who are given an opportunity to play in the NRL at such a young age.
Joseph Suaalii will get his chance to shine this weekend, when the 17-year-old is named in the Roosters squad to tackle Parramatta on Friday Night. What a baptism of fire: a blockbuster in front of 30,000 people at Bankwest Stadium.
I have no doubt Suaalii will be the next name added to the list of players who shine on debut.