Full throttle for Storm speedster O'Neill
There's a lot you may not know about Justin O'Neill. The 21-year-old has played 34 games for the Storm since his debut in 2010, quietly going about his business filling a couple of positions in the backline for the premiership pacesetters.
What's clear to anyone with fully functional eyes is that he's very, very quick, and able to sniff out a try at will.
But behind the scenes, he's a lot more than a barnstorming outside back. Coming from the small town of Hughenden in north Queensland, he's a former long jump champion and excellent sprinter. He's also developed a keen interest in developing rugby league in the Pacific.
"I've got a Vanuatuan background, my mum's originally from there," O'Neill explains. "Dane Campbell [rugby league administrator] is behind it all, he's getting a few local sides in Vanuatu started. He's trying to get a national team together."
O'Neill's mum, a former runner herself, brought up three boys: Justin, younger brother Samsen, who is contracted to the Cowboys, and older brother Paul, who plays with Townsville Brothers. Aside from gifting them some athletic talent, she's given them a keen interest in their heritage, too.
"I've been back to Vanuatu twice," O'Neill says. "I went recently for Christmas, to see Mum's family and where she grew up. It was really good.
"The [Vanuatu] team had a few trials in Cabramatta at the start of the year that my older brother played in. Dane's doing really well. I'm keeping in contact with him and I'm joining as much as I can to promote it and get behind them and try to get it up and running."
It might have been a short rugby league career for O'Neill so far, but his exploits have clearly given him some star power. For a club such as the Storm that boasts dozens of athletically gifted players, he is one of, if not the fastest, and he's already adept at handling big game pressure.
After deciding that rugby league was the game for him in his early teens, he was duly scouted while playing local league in Cairns and put straight on a scholarship as he completed his studies at the Cathedral School in Townsville.
"The scout came and had a chat to me, asked if I wanted to come and have a look at the Storm and come down for scholarship camp with some of the younger boys," O'Neill tells Big League. "We were going to have a look how they trained down there. They soon became my favourite team."
He graduated in 2009 and made the move down to the biggest city he'd ever lived in in his life and, while it took some getting used to, he's become accustomed to the big city lifestyle in the Victorian capital.
"Melbourne altogether was different. Coming from Hughenden, there are only about 1,200 people living there," he says. "Moving to Townsville was a big move for me… I thought that was a big city. Coming to Melbourne was massive. It was a different culture, different weather, which was something that I had to get used to.
"It was a massive shock at first when I moved down. Dad came down for a couple weeks when I first moved and I got settled in with my host family. Now I've gotten used to Melbourne and I love it."
Of course, moving was made a little easier by the thrill of success. He played SG Ball with the Storm in 2009, when they made the grand final. After that game was over, he was picked in the club's Toyota Cup side, and went on to play a part in their premiership win. He got his shot in first grade in 2010, but injuries have cruelled the continuity in his game.
"I really felt like I was achieving a lot towards the end of last season," he says. "As a team we were doing pretty well, we got into the semis. I would've loved to have been there with the boys but it was frustrating that I got an injury and couldn't make it back in time."
That injury O'Neill references were in fact season-ending fractures to two vertebrae in his spine in Round 23 last year but after being given the all clear by the medical staff and completing a strong pre-season he was ready to make his mark on the NRL. He missed games in Rounds 4 and 5 due to a calf injury but in the 13 games he has played thus far he has made five line-breaks and scored six tries.
"To start the year, I wanted to get a full pre-season under my belt. I wanted to make sure that I had all my injuries fixed and I was managing them well," O'Neill says.
"The other thing was definitely to play consistent first grade games, to get those games under my belt rather than string five together, get an injury to set me out and then play another five. I think I've been doing pretty well this year – touch wood – and hopefully I can keep it up."
Now that you know a little bit more about Justin O'Neill, trust us on this – his performances on the field will say a lot more than he ever would.