Standing in a corner of the Newcastle Knights’ dressing room after last Saturday night’s clash at Parramatta Stadium, Luke Kelly and James McManus could have blended into the background as any two players catching up for a quick post-game chat. Yet this had been more than just any old clash and their conversation was far removed from the typical ‘Good game, mate’.
For the first time in NRL history*, the Eels-Knights clash saw two players that began their respective careers in the Northern Territory go head to head – a fact that escaped neither given the long roads they have travelled to make it in the NRL.
“I guess it was probably one of the first times ever on the weekend, playing against James McManus,” new Eels five-eighth Kelly observed this week. “It (Northern Territory) is not the traditional starting place for rugby league but still, a lot of people are very passionate about the game up there.
“Obviously James played some of his junior footy and I played all of my junior footy there until I was 16, so it was good to have the chance to play against him.
“I didn’t really know him too well when I was back home because he was a little bit older but I would always see him around and I knew of him. So yeah, we caught up after the game last weekend and had a really good chat.”
It proved to be yet another tough night out for Parramatta as they fell to their twelfth loss of the season, but in Kelly – who only joined the Eels from Melbourne three weeks ago – they see the potential for long-term success.
Granted an immediate release to help resurrect their flailing season after four-and-a-half years with the Storm, he played just a single game for Parramatta’s feeder club Wentworthville before debuting a fortnight ago in the Eels’ 19-18 win over Penrith.
“It’s been pretty exciting coming to a new club,” explains Kelly, who for the time being has usurped the far more experienced Ben Roberts in the No.6 jersey. “I do feel a bit like the new kid at school – it’s always a bit weird when you leave a club mid-season and come somewhere else – but I’m really enjoying it at the moment. It’s an opportunity to play first grade. The club has been good. Everyone has been really nice and made me feel welcome so I’m settling in really well.”
To be fair, Kelly has never been one to shirk a long-distance opportunity, having first moved from Katherine to Sydney at the age of 16 to take up an opportunity with Wests Tigers. A Broncos supporter as a kid, he had previously dreamed of a move to Queensland until he found himself lining up against a Tigers Under-18s development squad when the club toured the Top End in mid-2005. Among those in that young Tigers side that day were Chris Lawrence and Kelly’s new Parramatta team-mate Matthew Ryan, but Kelly impressed enough to attract the club’s interest and he spent the next two seasons boarding at St Gregory’s College, Campbelltown, and plying his trade for Western Suburbs in SG Ball.
“Then came the offer to join the Storm so as soon as I finished school I headed to Melbourne and I’ve been there ever since,” he recounts. “I guess that’s what made it so hard to leave.
“This was my fifth year at the Storm and it was all I knew. It’s all I’ve known in rugby league. So yeah, it was tough. A lot of my closest friends are down there at the Storm.
“The club has always been unreal to me. But the reason everyone plays is to have the chance to play first grade and with Gaz (Gareth Widdop) and Cooper [Cronk] going really well at the Storm it was hard to get a game.
“It’s obviously never ideal to leave a club mid-season but it worked out that way and to be honest it was an easy decision in the end to chase the opportunity.”
In many ways, Kelly’s move to the Eels should come as no surprise: his first three seasons in Melbourne were spent under then-Storm assistant coach Stephen Kearney and Under-20s coach Brad Arthur, the pair having since headed to Sydney together after Kearney took over the top job at Parramatta last season.
And the 22-year-old admits his familiarity with Kearney’s structures have helped him settle in quickly to his new surrounds.
“It’s all pretty similar,” he says. “It’s no secret that Craig [Bellamy] is all about hard work and doing your job and Steve is very similar in that regard. Everyone is given their roles. A lot of his philosophies are pretty similar.”
Likewise, Kearney isn’t expecting miracles from the young playmaker. Asked if he saw it as his job to ease the pressure on under-fire halfback Chris Sandow, Kelly replies: “I don’t really see it as my job. Steve sort of gives everyone their roles in the team and at the club and if I’m doing my job and everyone else is doing their role it makes it easier on everyone else.
“Chris is obviously a very talented player and the more we play alongside one another the more we’ll get to know each other’s games, so I think we’ll improve as a combination.
“But no, I don’t see it as my job to ease the pressure on anyone else.”
In fact, insists Kelly, he and Kearney are yet to speak at length about exactly what the rookie coach has in store for him over the next two-and-a-half years, or where he stands long term given the presence of Roberts as the other primary five-eighth option.
“We haven’t sat down and had a long chat about it or anything like that,” Kelly explains. “I spoke to [Kearney] as I was coming up here and he just said that there were some opportunities here at the club.
“It was along the lines of ‘nobody is guaranteed their position but if you put your head down and work hard there are definitely going to be some opportunities’.
“That’s pretty much all he said to me.”
Still, Kelly has jumped quickly into his new life. Having packed up and moved within a matter of weeks, he now finds himself living with the Eels’ promising winger Ken Sio in an apartment in Parramatta. And although he is happy to take small steps on his path to playing regular first grade, he says he is already excited by the prospect of being part of an Eels resurgence over the coming seasons.
“At the moment I’d just love to play regular, consistent first grade. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little fella and if I could do that I’d be over the moon,” he says.
“But I’m enjoying it here already. I know it hasn’t been a great start to the year but with the players we’ve got here the future is very promising. We can only improve from here.”
* Bulldogs team-mates Ben Barba and Joel Romelo were both born in Darwin but moved to Queensland while still toddlers.