Titan Don blooms late at 25
Small lapses in concentration are all that separate the Titans from becoming genuine title contenders, according to rising star winger Anthony Don.
The Titans – dismissed from plenty of experts’ finals calculations following the departure of veteran playmaker Scott Prince at the start of the season – are this year’s NRL surprise packets and face league’s toughest test in the Melbourne Storm at Skilled Park on Monday night. Currently sitting in sixth position on the ladder, the Gold Coast are finals-zone entrenched following seven victories from 13 starts in 2013, including wins against the Raiders, Sea Eagles, Dragons and Cowboys.
Don, a six-match first grade rookie who has impressed since making his debut on the wing in Round 6 this year against the Eels, says his team has title-winning potential if it remedies periods during matches where the side “clocks off”.
“I think we’re all pretty excited to keep playing games, keep learning and keep winning matches,” Don, the grandson of the late rugby league legend Ron Willey, says.
“We gave Souths a real run for their money last week and there was a big period of the game where we played pretty ordinary. If we can eliminate those little bad periods we’ll be able to beat anyone on our day.
“So far  is full of promise. We’re travelling along pretty nicely at the moment but there’s a whole clump of teams behind us. We’ve just got to keep winning more games than we lose and we should be there at the end of the year.”
Don himself has been travelling along pretty nicely as a rookie in the NRL – so far in 2013, he’s scored three tries, made six line-breaks and had a helping hand in three Titans four-pointers from half-a-dozen matches. It’s a fair record for a 25-year-old debutant who was overlooked as a junior player and had to come through the NRL’s back door to get a game in first grade.
“Because I came up through the ranks pretty slowly, I don’t feel that out of my depth and I feel pretty comfortable especially with every game I’ve played,” Don, who was born in Manly but moved to Grafton at two, says.
“After school I trialled for the -20s [at Manly] the first year but I didn’t make that, then I went to uni and studied PE teaching at Newcastle and studied that for four years.
“After that I finished my degree and went back to Grafton where I grew up and spent a year teaching in Grafton and playing footy for the Grafton Ghosts. We won the comp that year – we were undefeated – and I had a pretty good season for the Ghosties.
“Then I thought I’d try to have a go at the next level which is either Queensland or NSW Cup and I went down to Burleigh and signed with them and at the end of my first season I got offered a pre-season contract at the Titans and then did the pre-season then went back to Burleigh again and at the end that season got offered two years and now I’m in the first year of that contract.”
Don, an unassuming, say-it-how-it-is interviewee, says he felt his chance to represent at the top level had been and gone… until the Titans eventually came knocking. Most uncapped players, after all, are recruited to NRL clubs as teenagers and some even make their top-grade debuts before they hit 20.
“I wasn’t really confident or pinning my hopes on it because I never really made any junior rep teams when I was younger… I didn’t really make any rep teams,” Don reveals.
“I was really small, even when I was in the under-16s I wasn’t even making the run-on team for the Grafton Ghosts ’cause I was real short, then I had a growth spurt and then I kind of got taller but was kind of slow, I guess. Then my speed kind of slowly came in around my early 20s – it wasn’t like I worked on it or anything. I don’t know how it happened...”
What Don does know, though, is he is blessed to be playing rugby league at the top level – especially after seeing what life is like on the ‘other side’.
“It’s been good each week just going out there and trying to improve on little things and playing at full stadiums, in front of big crowds on big occasions. It’s been awesome – a dream come true,” Don says.
“After uni I had three years working as a PE teacher before I was full-time (as an NRL player) and it’s awesome not having to work and getting paid to do something you love, playing rugby league and just going to training with the boys. Going to training during the week is nothing like having a full-time job. It’s just so much easier and so much more enjoyable to do.
“I think most of the guys would have been in junior reps and had all their ambitions set on making the NRL and they made it so they’re not really used to [working] but it’s just how it’s come about for me.”
This week Don and his talented teammates turn their focus to the might of Melbourne. The reigning premiers, the Storm sit in second place following another solid, professional start to the season. On Monday night, though, they’ll be without Origin stars Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Ryan Hoffman – and the Titans know they’re vulnerable.
“It’s a good time to get them with their big four players out,” Don admits.
“We’re missing ‘Birdy’ (Greg Bird) and Nate (Myles) but it’s still a bit of an unfair advantage to us but they’ve still got a quality team across the park and their defence is still going to be very good without those players. It’s still going to be a tough game.”
As ‘tough’ as Monday night’s game might prove, Don is just grateful to be given the chance to play in the NRL – and, with some luck, fulfill another task on his life’s ‘to-do’ list.
“As soon as I played one NRL game that’d have done me,” Don says.
“I was content with that and happy to get that out of the way but now I’m stringing a few games together I’ve got a bit of a burning desire to keep it going and keep enjoying the ride while I can.
“I think the hope of anyone is to just win a premiership. I got to win one in Grafton and that was a pretty still a pretty special moment but to do it with an NRL team would be amazing.”