Former Australian and Broncos five-eighth Kevin Walters didn’t get much sympathy from his team-mates or coach Wayne Bennett when he injured his ankle mid-season in 1995, because they had unearthed a superstar in his absence ... teenage rookie Darren Lockyer.
Lockyer, who was aged 18 and had just eight under-19 matches for Brisbane under his belt, made his big break into the Broncos first-grade side on June 25, 1995, against the Eels at Parramatta Stadium as a replacement for Walters.
Walters, 43, now the Melbourne Storm assistant coach, wasn’t at the match (and it wasn’t televised live in those days) but he soon heard about it.
“Darren wasn’t named but he played reserve grade then started on the interchange bench for first grade and got a game in the second half and played extremely well,” Walters told NRL.com.
“Chris Johns, Allan Langer and Wayne Bennett all rang me after the game and said not to worry too much about my ankle injury; take as long as you like … they had Darren Lockyer. Loving guys, weren’t they?
“They said there was something special about him from his first few moments in the game. After that I made sure I watch the replay of the game on television.
“He was something else, that’s for sure. For an 18-year-old, the way he just slotted into first grade in his first game … he looked at home. That’s how good he was.”
Walters, who played for the Broncos from 1990 to 2001, said it was exciting to play beside the young Lockyer who played in a number of positions for the first few years, before cementing a permanent spot at fullback in 1997.
“I wasn’t worried about my spot; I was excited that we had discovered a player of the elite kind,” he said.
Walters said Lockyer’s switch from fullback, where he was rated the best in the world, to playing five-eighth was an incredible and unselfish achievement.
“There are not too many guys who could do that,” he said. “Obviously he had the skill to cover both but to move into the frontline of defence takes a bit of time to adjust to. It didn’t change what he did with the ball.
“I was very confident that it was something he could achieve. It was a big decision … to go from being the best fullback to an unknown at five-eighth was a very unselfish move.
“What he did was enormous. It is testimony to his ability, desire and competitiveness that he then became one of the best five-eighths in the world. It would have been something he would have had to work at all the time.
Walters, who played 287 NRL games from1987-2001, said the record Lockyer will set this season for the most NRL appearances in the game’s 100-year history is unlikely to be broken. He will break the current 349-game record this Friday against the Cowboys in Townsville.
“It’s a pretty amazing record,” said Walters. “To play at that level he has … and having the impact he does in those games. He doesn’t play in a dinner suit very often; he puts his body on the line.”