Every player looks back upon their debut with fondness. In 2009, for the then 18-year‑old Matthew Wright, there was a mix of excitement and nervousness. Hailed as a star of the future after scoring a hat-trick for the New South Wales under-18s against Queensland, Wright was signed by the Sharks virtually straight after finishing school at Patrician Brothers Blacktown. Less than a year later, he was, to say the least, surprised to get a tap on the shoulder from then Sharks coach Ricky Stuart.
So this was it. The big moment. Picked at fullback, he lined up against the Raiders for his first game in first grade.
“Getting that first touch and making a hit-up was really physical, and I was like, Oh yeah, I’m in for a game. It wasn’t like the 20s or anything like that,” Wright tells Big League.
“It took me by surprise when ‘Sticky’ told me I was going to play. I was really stoked. I was just really nervous and starting to get prepared for that first game because I knew it was going to be physical. I was really nervous. As soon as I touched that ball it was just happy days. I was relieved.”
As for the rest of the story, three years on he can now laugh at how his debut ended.
“I pulled a cramp and got stretchered off and everyone was giving it to me afterwards,” he says with a big smile.
It’s hard to believe that Wright already has almost 50 first grade games under his belt, but his early elevation into the toughest arena of all has taught him a few things.
He still lives in Blacktown with his family, making the hourly trek every day to and from Cronulla, but he’s not complaining. Re-signing with the club until the end of the 2013 season, he clearly enjoys life as a Shark – even though that hung in the balance in the early stages of his career.
Following his debut in 2009 he went on to play a further 16 games that season. But Wright fell off the radar in 2010, and spent the year toiling away in the lower grades, plotting his return.
“I was struggling that year,” he says. “Things weren’t going right for me and I really needed to pull my head in and dig deep, train hard that off-season and try to get back into first grade. It paid off. I put my head down and really wanted to get that spot.
“I was worried at first. My head wasn’t there. I had problems off the field, but life’s going well now.”
Going well it is. In the absence of Nathan Gardner, who has been missing for Cronulla with injury, Wright has taken to his preferred role at fullback with little fuss or fanfare.
He trails only Paul Gallen and Bryce Gibbs in average metres at the Sharks and has made 27 tackle-breaks in seven games since being handed the No.1 jersey.
“I don’t care where I play but fullback was probably my position,” Wright says. “As long as I’m doing my job for the team and getting those wins I’ll play wherever I’m needed.
“I’m enjoying it. It’s certainly a step up for me too, especially considering ‘Gards’ is out. When coach told me I was going to be at fullback it was about stepping up my game and getting in there and doing my job well.
“Especially in the back there, I want to get my hands on the ball a lot. On the wing you don’t get it as much. I like to get in the middle and get my hands on the ball, supporting the forwards as well.”
What’s perhaps most interesting about the youngster is who he counts as inspiration. New Zealand-born Wright, who moved to Australia as a baby and has Samoan heritage, admits his family was on the Warriors fan train when he was a kid, although they’ll be cheering the Sharks on when the two clubs play each other this weekend.
With a choice of legends such as Stacey Jones, Ruben Wiki and Richard Villasanti, Wright goes a different path after thinking hard about who he admired growing up.
“I looked up to Matthew Ridge, the fullback from the Warriors,” he says. “His speed, his step and his ball-play, I used to watch him, especially with my uncles playing with him. I looked up to him at fullback especially. He inspired me a lot.”
His future in the No.1 is uncertain with Gardner due to return from injury but, for now, Wright is exactly where he wants to be.