Teens buoyed by backing of NRL stars
Five years ago Canberra back-rower Tevita Pangai Jr was running around as a 14-year-old for South Newcastle in the centres alongside fellow three-quarter – Knights and Australian star Sione Mata'utia no less – the two quickly earned a name for themselves for wreaking havoc across the Hunter region.
Destroying kids half their size from surrounding areas such as Nelson Bay, Valentine and nearby rivals Wests – the two slowly progressed through the lower grades at the Knights before Pangai Jr was released to head to the nation's capital for family reasons.
But he and Mata'utia never lost touch.
And just over a year since the youngest brother of the famed Newcastle family earned his spot in the Holden Cup Team of the Year, Pangai Jr went on to do the same by earning a back row spot alongside Cowboy and recent NRL debutant Coen Hess on Monday.
Asked about his friendship with Mata'utia and his transformation from a centre to a utility forward Pangai Jr didn't pull any punches when describing the toughness of the year that's been.
"I'm trying to get used to the repeat efforts in the middle with the ball and on the defensive line as well as my mental toughness. I've been enjoying it but it's still a learning curve for me so hopefully for me I get a bit better," Pangai Jr told NRL.com.
"I think I'm a bit too big and a bit wide to play on the edges so I'm happy to play where I am. But it's pretty good to see how Sione is going and even now I still learn from him.
"We still keep in contact and he gives me a lot of advice on my footy. To see him make the NYC Team of the Year last season and go on to achieve what he has done is pretty good. And it's been a tough year overall for me but to achieve these honours makes it all the worthwhile."
Roosters fullback Latrell Mitchell is another who joined Pangai Jr in the NYC Team of the Year who has earned the backing of NRL stars.
It was almost a month ago since Mitchell was named 18th man for Trent Robinson's team, and it's an experience he'll never forget.
"Warming up was freaky, man. I missed the NYC game and when we went on to the field it was a completely different atmosphere to playing in the Holden Cup. It gives you perspective of what needs to be done on and off the field to play NRL," Mitchell told NRL.com.
"On the training paddock in the NRL squad it's just full on, everyone is switched on and everyone needs to do their job otherwise you're getting ripped off the park.
"I get mentored by Mitch Aubusson, he's been really good for me and even Roger [Tuivasa-Sheck] he's been teaching me heaps when it comes to my positioning and stuff like that. Since I've been working with these two boys it's helped me out massively."
With Tuivasa-Sheck off to the Warriors in 2016, 18-year-old Mitchell's name has been thrown around to replace the superstar fullback in the NRL next season but with the help of his fellow Team of the Year representatives – perhaps not to their knowledge either – he is keeping himself grounded.
"That's the dream, that's the goal [to play in the NRL] but I'm going to take my time, have a good pre-season and see what Robbo wants to do with me," Mitchell said.
"But being amongst all these good players [at the team announcement] it's special. Look at [Sea Eagle] Tommy Trbojevic man, he's a freak and having people like him here keeps me honest."