THERE have been a few ‘project’ five-eighths out at Penrith over the years. Blokes gifted on the footy field but, for some reason or another, haven’t gone on to convert their natural talents into fulfilling careers.
Guys like Joe Williams, Brett Firman, Richie Williams and more recently, Arana Taumata, have each arrived at the foot of the mountains in search of an environment that would help them thrive in the No.6, only to find that not one of them could last more than four games. And in Taumata’s case – the kid who’s played at more clubs than Slim Dusty – he didn’t even get one look-in before allegedly racing off with a doctor’s prescription pad.
But among the sea of misfits surfaced one rough diamond who has eventually come good. Tarnished with a rap sheet in danger of becoming as long as John Hopoate’s, the Panthers gave Travis Burns just 12 months to show he was ready to fight for his career, rather than charges at the judiciary.
And in less than six months, Penrith did what the Sea Eagles and Cowboys weren’t able to do – extend his stay at the club.
“I signed here on a one-year deal [for 2010] because I wanted to back myself and I was lucky enough to have a really good season last year,” Burns tells Big League.
“I wasn’t interrupted too much by injury and I’ve kept my nose clean in the last few years, suspension-wise, which has hampered me throughout my career.
“It was good faith shown by the club to re-sign me so hopefully I can keep playing good footy for the Panthers and we can turn our season around.”
After being named Manly’s Rookie of the Year in 2006 (right), the Texas, Queensland junior experienced a suspension-marred second season before landing what was supposed
to be the dream job of playing outside Johnathan Thurston at North Queensland.
“I could’ve stayed at Manly but they had Jamie Lyon there and I didn’t know what Dessie’s [Manly coach Des Hasler] plans were for me going forward,” Burns continues. “And the deal with the Cowboys, the three-year deal, was a pretty good offer at that stage of my career.
“To play outside Johnathan Thurston and the way the Cowboys were travelling, it just looked like the right fit for me. And I’m a Queensland boy so I could get back to Queensland where I could chase a pig and do a bit of fishing.”
Turns out he was doing a bit of head-hunting, too. Burns played just 14 games in his first season at the club, again finding himself in trouble with the referees.
“My head wasn’t switched on up there, you can say. I missed a lot of games through suspension and I missed a few games through injury. ‘JT’ and I just didn’t play as much footy together as we would’ve liked to. We didn’t gel, and we probably took our time.
“I was there two years and had a couple of real bad years, but that happens in footy… that’s the nature of the game.
“I got the opportunity to come to the Panthers and we had a great first year [in 2010]. We ended up second and then we were bundled out in straight sets in the finals, but it was the first time they made the finals in six years so it was a big achievement for the club.
“Hopefully we can build on whatever momentum we’ve got now, make the semis and give it a bit of a shake.”
A poor start to this year had the Panthers languishing in the competition, just one win above last-placed Canberra by Round 12. But the team has picked up their game and ahead of Sunday afternoon’s clash with competition hot-shots Manly, Burns and his team-mates are clinging onto eighth spot.
Now Burns, the sharpshooting goalkicker who’s landed 24 from 25 attempts since taking over from the injured Michael Gordon, has the added motivation of taking on another ‘roughie’, Sea Eagles No.6 Kieran Foran, who Burns describes as the form playmaker in the competition.
“He’s tough. He can cop the big hits so I don’t think he’s too worried about copping the big hits, especially from little five-eighths like me,” the 27-year-old says.
“He plays the game tough and aggressive which I like to play as well. It’ll be a good test for me against him. He’s probably the in-form half of the comp with JT being out.
“He can really do some damage when he’s on, so it’s going to be a test for me and the whole squad to keep him under control.
“Not just him, though, but maintain their strike weapons and hopefully we can get the much-needed two points.”