Schoolyard to Suncorp: A try-scoring revelation

When an unfit kid walked into Broncos training for the first time late last year, coach Ivan Henjak wasn’t so sure it was where Antonio Winterstein should be.<br><br>The rookie winger was nowhere near the high standard Henjak expected of his players, and after coming from the Roosters’ unsuccessful Toyota Cup side, barely anyone knew who the 20-year-old was.<br><br>Luckily Winterstein had an old school mate inform the club just what kind of player they had picked up. Israel Folau partnered Winterstein in the centres during their school days at Marsden State High, and when he saw Winterstein walk into the club’s Red Hill headquarters, he knew the Broncos had made a savvy purchase.<br><br>“We went to school together and I remember him being a good player back then so I was pretty happy when I heard that he was at the Broncos,” Folau tells Big League. <br><br>“Ivan gave him the opportunity out wide and he took that with both hands and he’s really made the most of it, he’s playing well.<br><br>“I think now everyone realises how good a player he is.”<br><br>If the rugby league community had not noticed Winterstein before, they certainly did last Friday night. Winterstein, who is the cousin of Warriors forward Evarn Tuimavave, scored two tries, taking his season tally to five – and he is now the highest tryscorer at the club this year.<br><br>But it took some time to convince Henjak Winterstein deserved a shot in the NRL over last year’s Toyota Cup tryscoring sensation Jharal Yow Yeh. Losing Darius Boyd and Denan Kemp opened up the backline, but Henjak was not sure he would ever be the man to fill it.<br><br>“I didn’t know much about him until he came to pre-season training and he didn’t come in too good shape,” Henjak says. <br><br>“He didn’t impress me right at the beginning but after six weeks I was impressed because his attitude was great and he worked really hard to transform his body shape. I started to think ‘this kid might be a chance here’. <br><br>“Full credit to him, he’s done a marvellous job.”<br><br>In 2009, Winterstein has emerged as Brisbane’s unexpected backline star. Originally from Auckland, Vincent Winterstein moved his young family to Brisbane when Antonio was 13 years old.<br><br>“My mum and dad thought it would be a good opportunity to move over here and it was,” Winterstein explains.<br><br>The Logan Brothers junior was initially tied to the Canberra Raiders through their association with the Logan club, but the Roosters snapped him up to play in their lower grades straight out of school. He moved to Sydney as an 18-year-old and lived with former team-mate Rohan Ahern. <br><br>But the desperately shy Winterstein struggled with life in Sydney. On the field things weren’t much better. The Roosters came second last in the Toyota Cup in 2008, making Winterstein’s passage from the Roosters’ lower grades to top of the NRL table even more astonishing.<br><br>“None of my family were in Sydney so I was just playing football, going home and watching TV. It was a bit boring,” Winterstein says of his two-year stint in Sydney.<br><br>“It plays on your mind a bit and I was getting pretty homesick. I was going home every month and my parents would come down and visit and cook me dinner and stuff. It’s good to be home with my parents and brothers and sisters.”<br><br>When Winterstein signed with the Broncos, playing first grade was a goal, but it was an aspiration that was never assured. He was so desperate to be back with his family he would have played the whole season in Queensland Cup.<br><br>But according to his coaches, past and present, that’s how dedicated Winterstein is to his family and rugby league.<br><br>At Marsden State, Winterstein played alongside Folau and a small halfback called Chris Sandow. Their coach Kim Bray vividly remembers the trio as exceptionally talented, but Winterstein’s willingness for hard work stood out.<br><br>“Antonio was a dedicated athlete, he was one of those guys who trained so hard,” Bray recalls. <br><br>“He’s going well, it’s just pleasing to see kids who try hard achieve what they want. Izzy was the same, he was a great athlete but he spent hours after school kicking a footy down the park and doing all that training. <br><br>“Antonio always gave 100 per cent. There were no half measures for Antonio and that is why he is where he is today. <br><br>“He came up here to play Queensland Cup, not to play for the Broncos, so it’s quite amazing.”<br><br>Henjak acknowledges Winterstein’s path to first grade has not been easy, particularly because the Queensland Under-18s representative has only ever played in the centres.<br><br>Winterstein’s second try from a Peter Wallace cross-field kick when he plucked the ball from Michael Gordon’s grasp last weekend exhibited just how much he has learned in six short weeks. Fielding kicks, particularly bombs, is a difficult art but Winterstein has flourished under the tutelage of one of the best.<br><br>“Most teams expect the ball to go to Israel’s side so we just change it up a bit. I’ve been taught by Izzy really, I never used to be good under the high ball but he’s taught me a few things,” Winterstein says.<br><br>“I prefer centre but playing wing has really pushed me and I’m just happy to be out there. You don’t have to do much defence, but you have to be able to catch the ball and return the kicks well.”<br><br>Winterstein still pinches himself every now and then about his&nbsp; rapid rise&nbsp; in the NRL. While the humble winger says he is playing “every game like it’s my last”, Henjak can’t wait for what else Winterstein still has to show.<br><br>“He’s got some real positives in his game and I still think there’s a lot left in Antonio right now. It’s only his first year and I’m sure he’ll get a lot more confident as the year goes on, the more he plays and the more performances he puts in,” Henjak says. <br><br>“I’m really happy for him because he had to do it tough. I love seeing young fellas that have to go along that path. <br><br>“The ones that get it easy are hard work at times and he hasn’t been hard work at all.”<br><br>The one remaining question is where this talent’s allegiances lie. He played junior rep games for Queensland, but could qualify for the Kiwis, plus he has Samoan heritage.<br><br>After opening up about his rise to first grade, Winterstein suddenly has a fit of shyness.<br><br>“I haven’t made a decision yet, when it comes to it I’ll start thinking about it,” he says coyly.<br><br>With more performances like the one against the Panthers, the recruiters will start circling.<br><br><i>Also in this week’s issue of Big League we speak to Cowboys coach Neil Henry, Jeff Lima and Adam Blair from the Storm and Raiders Josh Dugan.<br><br>Big League, the official magazine of the NRL, is on sale every Thursday at newsagents, Woolworths supermarkets, Big W stores, and at all Telstra Premiership games, for just $4.95.</i><br>