Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Charly Runciman is thriving on the golden opportunity he has been given to play first grade for the Dragons while still a teenager.
Runciman, who will turn 20 on July 22, made his first-grade debut in the centres against Penrith last week and is there again for the game against Sydney Roosters at WIN Jubilee Oval on Saturday.
It is a very tough initiation, with St George Illawarra hit by injuries and five-eighth Jamie Soward having been released for the remainder of the season to play in England before joining the Panthers next year, but as a result of such situations young players often get opportunities.
Sometimes it is ahead of schedule, and Runciman certainly falls into that category. If everything was going according to plan at the Dragons, Matt Cooper plus either of Kyle or Chase Stanley would be playing in the centres.
But Kyle is out injured for the remainder of the season. Brother Chase is at five-eighth, having taken over from Soward there, and Cooper is on the long-term injured list with a toe problem. Hence, Runciman has been presented with his chance. Nathan Green is the other centre.
Runciman, who was the Dragons’ player of the year in the under-20s competition last year, stepped up to play a few games for the Illawarra Cutters in the NSW Cup before being blooded in first grade.
He didn’t set the world on fire against the Panthers, but it would have been a lot to ask of him to do so. The Dragons have struggled to create much of substance in attack this season, resulting in a lack of opportunities out wide.
That said, Runciman had some nice touches and laid on a try for his five-eighth 15 minutes from fulltime. He played the full 80 minutes and made 10 runs for 60 metres, with one offload. He also made 14 tackles, and didn’t miss any tackles or make any errors.
It was a solid debut, and Runciman says that playing in the NSW Cup rather than going straight from the under-20s to first grade helped him a lot.
“Yeah, NSW Cup has been really good for my footy,” he said. “Playing against the men, which I haven’t really had the opportunity to do in the -20s, was good.
“It’s a bit less physical in the under 20s, and it was a really big step up when I got into the NSW Cup team.
“It was just up to ‘Pricey’ (coach Steve Price), where he wanted me to play, and what he thought was best for me.
“It just worked out that playing NSW Cup was helping me do a lot more than -20s was.
“I was fortunate enough to make my NRL debut last week and I really enjoyed the experience. I hope I can get a couple more games this year, if I’m lucky.”
Runciman, playing on the left-hand side where Cooper would normally be, said the speed of first grade was a shock to him at first, but that the experienced players around him did a lot before and during the game to help him adjust.
“It was a bit hard to pick up the pace of the game, because it’s played at a higher tempo,” Runciman said. “But after five or 10 minutes I got into the rhythm of the game and it was all right.
“I got to speak to a lot of the more senior blokes, especially the ones on my edge, like Brett Morris and Ben Creagh. And defending next to Chase Stanley really helped me out. They talked a lot to me during the game.
“I hope I can keep being consistent, week in and week out. Whenever I get the chance to play first grade I’ll just try my best and hopefully keep my spot while there are a few injuries.”
Even with the home-ground advantage, the 15th-placed Dragons face an enormous task against the second-placed Roosters.
The Dragons have the second-worst attack in the competition, having scored at an average of 14.5 points in their 15 games. The Roosters have the best defence, conceding at an average of just 13.1 points in their 15 games, and the second-best attack, scoring at an average of 22.8 points.
It is hard to see where the points are going to come from for the Dragons under the circumstances.
Sonny Bill Williams has been devastating in attack for the Roosters recently, and Runciman may well find the Kiwi superstar running at him at some stage. It’s all part of the learning process.