Some time in early January, Mark Minichiello boarded a Sydney-bound plane, ready to impress. He has eight seasons of first grade footy experience and two City appearances, it was as good a time as ever to strut it in front of new Blues coach Ricky Stuart at the emerging NSW Origin camp.
But up popped this curly, long-haired kid, who stood some 12 centimetres taller and had around seven kilos more muscle. Apparently this “kid”, Ryan James, with just four first grade games against his name, was out to do the same thing.
“I’ve played 170 first grade games!” Mini says to him. “You’ve played four… what’s the go here?” You see, four measly top-shelf games, plus an All Stars appearance, was all that was needed to discover one of coach John Cartwright’s latest little secrets. Another camp invitee, winger Kevin Gordon, will just play his 50th game this weekend. He’s only 21. Their other winger, David Mead, quietly scores a try every second game, while in the same batch is playmaker Jordan Rankin, who made his debut in 2008… aged 17.
But it’s James and Gordon who headline this new era of Titans. For the past two years, Cartwright wanted to hide these youngsters so badly he “gagged” them. Told them to put a sock in it and make sure the only time their mugs were on TV was when they were on the field. “Yeah, the club had a media ban on us for a while because we had to do a media training course up at the university,” James says. “I went to a couple of them but I think the club might still have a ban on me for TV interviews. I had one TV interview, but that didn’t go too well. I might stay away from them for a while!”
He may be lucky to avoid them this year.
Meanwhile Gordon, a Coffs Harbour product, conceded that not having to fret about media interviews gave him enough space to focus on the start of a career that has included plenty of highlights, including a 90-metre effort against the Cowboys in a trial two weeks ago, where he soccered the ball through five times before diving on the ball in the in-goal.
“It was a great feeling playing every game of the year and staying injury-free, which is what everyone wants to do,” he says. “That was one of my goals: to stay consistent. The more games I play, the more confident I’ll be. Not having to talk to the media took a bit of pressure off me, and helped me worry about my own game.”
But the bans have been lifted and the secrets are out in season 2011, and that’s why Carty signed on to coach for another half a decade. Today the club is led by its foundation stars in Preston Campbell, Scott Prince and Luke Bailey. Tomorrow it’ll be Gordon and James, the local products who won’t take too long to get their own rep jerseys.
And Carty wants to be here for all of it. “Initially I was keen to just get my future sorted out with the club for another year or two with an extension,” Cartwright explains. “But after talking to Mike [Searle], he was happy to go with the extended five-year deal. It is a great thing for me because I’ll start the season with these kids…
“Kevvie [Gordon] was brought here as a 16- year-old. Ryan’s been here from 16, 17; Davey Mead’s the same. Will Matthews… Shannon Walker… Esi Tonga – they are all kids that have come through this region.
“It’s very gratifying to see kids come through your own system and then graduate to play first grade, and hopefully even higher honours after that.”
The Titans have faltered at the semi-final stage in the past two years and Cartwright’s men have the ominous task of hosting defending premiers St George Illawarra in this weekend’s season-opener. The new NSW assistant coach stopped short of declaring the blockbuster a yard stick for his side, but stressed the importance of a good start.
“It’s a bit early for measuring points, but we’ll be watching ourselves closely,” Cartwright says. “To be the best and to win titles you’ve got to be consistent over a long period of time. We’ve got a really hard draw to start the first six games, so it’s important that we’re playing well.
“Every season, every win, is so important. You get down to the last game and there are sides who are just missing semis by a point or two, or on for-and-against. You’ve just got to take that mentality from game one. You can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s early on in the year. This one might slide’.”
Preparation for the weekend has been chequered, with injuries to Nathan Friend and Anthony Laffranchi, while Minichiello has been named as 18th man. But out of the shadows steps James, whose colossal hits in his first few games – and that he’s a local – have made him an instant favourite.
“We’re committed to our region. We want to keep giving kids on the Gold Coast and surrounding areas the opportunity to play NRL, -20s and to play in junior rep football,” Cartwright says.
“Every year we’re starting to see more kids come into the NRL squad. We’ve trained three this off-season in Jordan Rankin, Luke Page and Matt Srama, who are all out of our catchment areas. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them play some first grade at some stage this year. It’s very gratifying to see the progression.”