A memorable debut for Gold Coast Titans rookie Cameron Cullen was made easier by a wave of support from friends and family who flew down to watch him – including friends who were overseas with his brother Justin when he tragically died nine months ago.
"I can't even really go into how hard it's been, the last six or nine months, but I had all my family fly down... my oldest brother, my mum and dad, my partner and all her family," the 22-year-old said after a strong individual performance in his team's narrow 25-20 loss at Cronulla.
"Not only that but I had a bus load of all my mates that were on the boat when my brother passed away and every single one of them were on the hill over there. It was really good, I had heaps of support all week from everyone and then they all jumped on a plane and came down here to support me as well so it was awesome."
Cullen said he tried to keep the emotion out of things as much as he could while he was on the field but with a tribute to his brother tattooed on his forearm and chest, his best mate was never far away.
"It's been a hard nine months and it's probably driven me even harder to take the opportunity with both hands. I tried as hard as I could to keep the emotion out of it and just go out there and do my job," he said.
Recruited from Brisbane after a season-ending injury to Titans young gun Kane Elgey in the pre-season, Cullen was given a chance after another injury to senior half Tyrone Roberts left the club's playmaking depth in tatters.
But the composure of Cullen's 21-year-old former Broncos NYC teammate Ash Taylor helped both players manage the game and the visitors were unlucky not to edge a win after coming back from 14-0 down to lead 18-14 early in the second half.
"I've played with Ash before so it's nothing new for me. Obviously his kicking game and composure definitely helps me to have a bit more free range on the other side," Cullen said.
"Broncos 20s we played together, I think it was his first year and my last year in 20s."
The rest of the team including the injured halves helped the former Burleigh Bear through what was a roller coaster week.
"Kane was really good supporting me, Tyrone had a chat with me and I roomed with Ash. All the halves helped me out but not only that, all the boys got around me as soon as they named the team on Tuesday and that really helped me through the week so it was awesome," Cullen said.
"It was awesome [to get out there], I really enjoyed it. I'm disappointed that we didn't get the win but obviously it was great to be out there and I loved it.
"It was a really good week, I found out on Tuesday; Tuesday to Sunday is a bit of a long week but I'll never forget it. I really enjoyed the week and all the boys were really good to me. I was just really excited and wanted to make sure I put in all the work to prepare myself as best I could to come out and do the job today."
Cullen produced some memorable highlights – a nippy solo try was crucial at the time while an attempted ball-and-all tackle on Sharks giant Andrew Fifita saw the debutant sent flying.
"I just spotted Tagataese, a front-rower at 'A' [defender] so I thought I'd test him on the inside and it pulled off," was Cullen's matter-of-fact assessment of the try.
"If I had my time over I probably wouldn't [go high on Fifita] again but I saw an opportunity to go up and put some pressure on him and probably came off second best – but I had a crack."
Titans coach Neil Henry also had solid praise for his debutant half.
"I thought he was brave and busy. Difficult game. Bit scrappy," Henry said.
"We played a bit of offload stuff as well [so it was] hard to get our field position right but I thought he did a tremendous job.
"It's a tough assignment coming here on debut and I thought getting over the try-line, put his body on the line in a collision there or two. He can hold his head up high and so can his family and friends from that effort."
Henry said Roberts is an outside chance to return next week which could put a temporary halt to Cullen's NRL ambitions but said the former Knights halfback would need to be bouncing around at training to prove he is past his knee injury, suggesting Cullen may get another run at home against the Dragons next week.