Rabbitohs journeyman playmaker Cody Walker claims he hasn’t tried playing fullback since his under-16s days back in the local leagues in Grafton – but you wouldn’t know it after his efforts on Thursday night.
Filling the spot that was – up until three weeks ago – the exclusive domain of club captain and Kangaroos star Greg Inglis, Walker could be forgiven for wondering exactly how he wound up fielding kick-returns at ANZ Stadium in an NRL game.
But after a match in which he showed plenty of fitness to manage the extra kilometres required at the back, plenty of awareness to be in the right spot to field all those kicks, plenty of courage to scoop balls up on the fly and charge into the defensive line, as well as plenty of skill to score a crucial solo try right before half-time, Walker said he was just happy to be back in first grade after a month back playing for the North Sydney Bears.
Called up for a long-awaited NRL debut in Round 1 due to Luke Keary’s one-game suspension, immediately followed by a further five games courtesy of an injury to Adam Reynolds, Walker may have been wondering if his seventh NRL cap would ever arrive but once it did he took it with both hands despite being told by coach Michael Maguire at short notice he’d be playing in an unfamiliar position.
"It was a big eye-opener, I'm not used to running that many Ks!" Walker laughed after the game.
"I played [fullback] when I was about 15 just in local league in Grafton and under-16s and that but nothing at a higher level.
"I sort of had 10 minutes in reserve grade a couple of weeks ago but that was about it. Trained a bit at fullback at training but nothing in a game."
In adapting to the new role, he said his teammates helped him out in defence and attack and knowing where to go.
"I'd play anywhere in this side, wherever Madge wants to play me I'm happy to put my hand up and have a go. As long as I'm having a crack," he said.
"Wherever Madge plays me mate I'm happy to have a go. I'm happy to play any position for this footy team. If Madge wants me to play front row I'm sure I'd put my hand up and have a dig."
Walker said he was only notified a couple of days before the game what Maguire’s plans were.
"He just sort of said you'll float from fullback to wing and see how we go," Walker added.
Reflecting on taking over from a player of Inglis’s calibre, Walker said it was unexpected given he thought Inglis was the best fullback in the world.
"I didn't think so, but Madge sort of asked me a couple of days ago what do I think of me playing fullback and I just said as long as I'm playing first grade I don't care where I play," he said.
As someone who’s used to plugging away in reserve grade searching for an opportunity at the top level, Walker said he didn’t find his temporary demotion tough – despite the fact he is currently playing for a 2016 contract at either Redfern or elsewhere in the NRL.
"I don't think it was tough at all, I did what I needed to do and that was to go back to reserve grade and I thought I did that and back in first grade now so we'll see how we go," he said.
"I don't really worry about that [contract] sort of stuff, next year, I just focus on my week-to-week game and that will all take care of itself. If I'm performing on the weekends that will all take care of itself. It just doesn't worry me, if I'm doing my job an opportunity will come up."
After the game, Walker’s efforts were also praised by his halfback Adam Reynolds.
"He's an instinctive player and he plays what he sees, that's how he scored that try. So it’s a real credit to him, he's had the setback there, being pushed back out of the team, but he keeps working really hard at training and he was rewarded tonight," Reynolds said.
"He plays more like a fullback to me. I've seen a fair bit of him at training and just the way he moves around the field, if he's not a fullback, he's a running five-eighth. We knew what he was capable of and I thought he represented himself really well out there."
As a proud Indigenous man whose partner’s family are all from around Redfern and are mad Rabbitohs fans, the chance to wear South Sydney’s Indigenous themed jersey was a particularly special one for Walker.
"It's massive – I don't think I'll ever get that again, having my hand print and my two tribes on the jersey.
"That's a once in a lifetime jersey. I'm very proud of that, I'm very proud of where I come from and so are my family."