Matt Encarnacion,, Big League
WITH all due respect to the great Paul Sironen, he was never the type of bloke who told you when and where to run the ball.
He wasn’t blessed with vision that spanned the width of Drummoyne Bay, nor would he ever have been able to nail a 40/20.
In fact, other than his other-worldly brute strength and his reputation as one of the most intimidating tacklers of his day, there wasn’t much to the big fella except for that signature duct tape wrapped four times around his precious noggin’ and a front leg that screamed, ‘Tackle me if you dare.’
But if you let your imagination run wild a little bit – and let’s face it, ‘Sirro’ (far right) came after a generation that did plenty of it – you’d have fantasised of what it would be like if you could add a decent right-to-left pass to that hulking frame.
You might have thrown in a handy step off both feet, maybe a reasonable kicking game and a fend that would make ‘Blocker’ jealous. Do all of that and you’d proudly end up with the best Sirro since… well, Sirro himself.
“He’s Sirro with two yards of pace and minus 10 kilos,” lauds Wests Tigers under-20s coach and NRL assistant coach Todd Payten of Paul’s son Curtis (pictured, main). “And a mean cut-out.”
Payten played against Sironen Snr in the late 1990s before coaching Sironen Jnr in the under-20s for the past couple of seasons, so he’d be the best person to judge whether Sironen 2.0 is the same player we concocted in our heads.
“He’ll definitely play rep footy,” he confidently predicts. “Only thing is I just don’t know where it’s going to be. He’s 20, so he’s going to put at least another six to 10 kilos on him in the next two years.”
Currently at 102 kilograms, another “six to 10” brings Sironen close to his dad’s playing weight of 115kg. And at 195cm – or the old school 6-foot-5 – he’s already staring his old man in the eye and peering down at everyone else.
So that Paul Sironen-Andrew Johns composite we developed in our heads? Do yourself a favour and stick around Concord for a couple of years – it just may happen.
Tigers coach Mick Potter insists it was out of necessity that Sironen was rushed virtually straight from the surgeon’s table to the field against the Dragons in Round 6.
If escaping his dad’s rather sizeable shadow wasn’t enough of a proposition for the still-teenager, then working his way back from a second shoulder reconstruction in three years gave Potter more reason to withhold his prodigy from the perilous world of first grade football.
With budding halfback Jacob Miller willing and able at the start of pre-season, it wasn’t too hard a decision to make Miller the first-choice No.7 in January.
But a couple of games in the Holden Cup and three NRL games in his comeback from injury was all it took for Sironen to prove that Miller would be surplus to requirements. Last month he was released to continue his playing career in England.
Potter, for all his patience during the Tigers’ seven-game losing streak earlier this year, wanted more out of his halfback. He wanted a kid that was assertive enough to take the pressure off the already heavily-laden shoulders of star playmakers Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah.
“Curtis has that part of the game covered,” Potter says. “When he’s calling the ball and demanding the ball, he gets the ball. We’ve got a good balance between him and Benji at the moment. Playing square gives us some good deception with the ball. They’re finding that balance between taking the line on and creating space for someone else.”
Adds Payten: “He’s definitely a stronger voice on the field than what we had. He probably rivals Benji with his talk out on the field. Other halves have come in and let Benji be the dominant force, the other halves have tended to wilt away a bit.
“But Sirro stands up to him, demands the ball, and will rip into the nine if he doesn’t get it. That’s what we need.”
Sironen himself says all the right things about not playing third fiddle to the Tigers’ celebrity duo. He’s humble enough to say he’d wear his dad’s famous No.11 just to play in the NRL, but he’s also brash enough to call for the ball when he sees it.
“That’s the first thing Benji told me to do in first grade – just run,” Sironen says. “Last year, he set me up for my first try and he just said, ‘Do that all the time. Just run.’ So I do that.
“The biggest thing is earning respect in first grade more than anything. You’ve got to go out there and do your job. Especially in the halves, you have to be dominant, forcing them to give you the ball.
“They thrive off that. That’s what they want. Earning their respect means not getting over-called all the time. When I first got into first grade I was letting them over-call me but now I’m starting to go, ‘Listen here. I want the ball as well.’”
That all could change however, when – not if – the Sironen genes kick in. Potter himself is reluctant to name Curtis his long-term halfback.
“It depends on how he grows,” Potter says. “He could be the biggest six or seven in the world, but we’ve got to look at his genetics. He hasn’t had a proper pre-season to build his frame. He’s still developing that. He’s only 19. I don’t know where it’s going to stop as far as his growth is concerned.
“Curtis has had a few setbacks in the last couple of years, [but] he’s made a rapid rise quicker than he could have or should have. But out of necessity, he’s got better and better as he’s played 20s and then come straight into first grade.
“He made his City [Origin] debut [in April] and he was still developing his fitness given that he had so long off. But every game that he plays, he’s getting better and building that endurance up in his body. He’s starting to play nice and square and straight.
“He’s a good, running player. He’s got a bright future ahead of him if he can stay fit.”
In other words, unless there’s an Armageddon in the next decade, Tigers fans will get to see Sironen 2.0 once again doing all sorts of things on the magical Leichhardt Oval.
“But can you have a 110kg halfback running around?” Payten asks. “He’s not lightning at the moment and I only expect him to slow down once he bulks up. My opinion is that he’s an edge back-rower running through holes, playing on an edge.”
That’s the thing about Sironen. No matter who you talk to, everyone’s got an opinion – or a vivid imagination – of where this kid will end up. For what it’s worth, Sironen Jnr himself doesn’t know, nor does he care.
“I’d play front row like my dad if it meant playing first grade,” the young fella says. “But I always knew deep down that I wanted to establish myself in the 13, be it at five-eighth, halfback or in the back row.
“Ever since I’ve been with the Tigers, I don’t think I’ve ever had a full off-season of weights because I’ve had small knee surgeries and then I’ve had two big shoulder reconstructions. I could put on another five or 10kg of muscle. I haven’t got that much on me yet.
“Mick might’ve thrown me in early, but I was never going to say no to playing first grade. I’m grateful that he gave me an opportunity and now hopefully I can do him justice by playing well.”