Brenton Lawrence didn’t really understand what his coaches were telling him at the time. That the kid from Adelaide – a former centre that had only recently found a new home in the front row – was still a long way off becoming an NRL standard go-forward man.
“Because I was 18 or 19 when I moved into the front row and everyone was saying to me ‘You’re not going to be a good front-rower until you’re older’… but you don’t want to hear that when you’re young,” the Manly recruit recalled ahead of Thursday night’s blockbuster against Wests Tigers.
“You think you can play NRL that weekend. But they were right. It took a long while for me to get a good understanding of what I was doing and how to play the game. It’s completely different in the middle so it took a while. But that’s why I’m here.”
Lawrence nods in agreement when it is put to him that he is a late bloomer, having never fully established himself in his two seasons at the Gold Coast. But that’s exactly why the Sea Eagles are so excited about his prospects.
At 28 years of age, he arrived at the club’s Narrabeen headquarters in the pre-season with just 18 first grade games to his name yet having already earned a starting spot in the Manly pack the Eagles believe they have found the bargain buy of the season.
“What we’ve got in Brenton is a guy that is mature mentally, having been around for a while now, but one that hasn’t played a real lot of footy,” said football manager Steve Gigg.
“We came across him in the first place because we were looking to add some depth to the pack without necessarily breaking the bank. I don’t like using the term ‘bargain buy’ because that doesn’t do him justice but we saw him as a guy that could fit quite easily into the systems we’ve got in place here.
“But I think we got more than that. Because he hasn’t played much footy he still has a lot of improvement left in him plus his body is in great shape because it hasn’t been through as much physical punishment as the guys that have been around longer. We see him as having a big future at this club over the coming years.”
In fact, Lawrence – who is signed until the end of 2015 – is now being groomed to take over from Brent Kite at the end of the year with the veteran prop having this week signed a two-year deal with Penrith.
Lawrence pulls on his boots for just his 22nd NRL game against the Tigers on Thursday night – the irony being he’s locking horns with one of the best rising props in the game in 22-year-old Aaron Woods who has already played 51 first grade games.
Asked if he had surprised himself with his performances for the Sea Eagles since arriving this season, Lawrence said: “I’ve always backed myself but yeah, a little bit. You gain confidence with the more time you spend on the field.
“But I never really gave up hope [of making it]. I always thought about playing football at NRL level. For some reason, maybe blindly or foolishly, I always backed myself.
“I’m not getting carried away with what I’m doing or anything but to be starting and to be part of it has been really good for my football.”
That Lawrence finds himself playing NRL after so many years spent trying to make his way is as much down to good luck as good management.
His path has certainly been an unusual one. Raised in AFL-mad Adelaide, he dabbled in schoolboy football as a teenager and showed enough at a young age for scouts from Canberra to offer him an opportunity in the nation’s capital.
But when that didn’t work out, he put in an application to join the air force at the start of 2011.
“In doing so I waited a fair while to get a start, so in the meantime I moved up to Queensland and played a few games for Burleigh which was when the Titans spotted me,” Lawrence explained.
“By the time the air force called and said ‘right we’re ready to go’ I was like ‘no, I’m playing footy now’. So that didn’t work out – but I guess things have fallen my way.”