Brisbane Broncos winger Antonio Winterstein grew up idolising Wendell Sailor – now the youngster is charged with stopping his boyhood hero in Friday night’s NRL blockbuster against the Dragons at Suncorp Stadium.
Winterstein’s clash with Sailor continues a meteoric rise for the 20-year-old, who endured one of the toughest years of his life last year.
The young winger was living in Sydney away from his family and playing for the struggling Roosters’ Toyota Cup side.
The team won just six of 24 games, Winterstein was homesick and he just wanted to move back home to be close to his family.
He never dreamed the move home would propel him into an all-star Broncos backline alongside his idols Darren Lockyer, Karmichael Hunt, Justin Hodges and Israel Folau.
Now the youngster, who lives with his parents, will line up against one of his all-time favourite players in Sailor, who was named in the Broncos’ 20 best players of 20 years.
“Sailor has been one of my childhood heroes and he is still one of my favourite players,” Winterstein said.
“It is going to be good going up against one of my icons.
“I was definitely a Broncos fan and a Wendell fan growing up, so I am pretty excited to play against him.
“He is such a good player and I am just really excited to play against one of the best wingers in the world.
“It is intimidating in a way, but I think it will bring the best out in me.”
Winterstein’s transformation from struggling in a foreign city just a few months ago to making his first-grade debut and starring in one of the NRL’s best backlines is amazing.
“My hopes coming to Brisbane were just to get a couple of Queensland Cup games under my wing, but to get a start in the NRL is unreal,” he said.
“I was definitely a little bit star-struck at first, I just thought I was getting in the way, but I am a lot more comfortable now.
“The first training session I was pretty nervous, training with all these NRL stars, but they really welcomed me into the team.
“It is a big buzz training with Lockyer and Co. every day, I don’t think it has really kicked in yet to be honest.
“I am just learning so much from these experienced players and they are a great bunch of blokes to be around.
“Playing in the backline with Hodgo (Justin Hodges) and Izzy (Israel Folau) is awesome, and it really makes you want to improve and step up to their level.”
He couldn’t have asked for a better start to his NRL career – a try on debut and playing in the only undefeated side in the NRL.
He now takes his place in an NRL blockbuster when Bennett returns to his former club in front of a near sell-out at Suncorp stadium.
“It is a big change from just a couple of months ago,” he said.
“The atmosphere on Friday is going to be unbelievable and I think it is going to be a real tough game.
“It is the best feeling in the world being in the Broncos team and running out in front of all those fans at Suncorp Stadium.
“It makes you feel proud to wear the jersey.”
Broncos coach Ivan Henjak has shown faith in his young charger and believes Winterstein will do the job against the much bigger and more experienced Sailor on Friday night.
“I think that left hand side is good,” he said.
“I am confident that Wendell won’t bash them up too much.
“It’s a big game, there is going to be a big crowd and there is a lot of expectation, so it is going to be good for our younger players to experience that.
“They are looking forward to it, it is going to be a good challenge for them and the whole team.”