Manly rookie Kelly undaunted by big shoes to fill
Manly coach Trent Barrett threw an early-season curveball this week by opting to pitch rookie centre Brian Kelly into first grade over more experienced options, but the affable Ballina junior has a pretty simple wish list first his 2017 season: get through the year injury-free and meet club legend Jamie Lyon.
The promising Titans rookie was being spoken of as a contender to debut last season but an early knee injury put those plans on ice. However once he got back on the park in the NYC side he was a dominant force for the Gold Coast, notching 132 metres and 3.5 tackle busts per game as well as 11 tries in his 15 appearances.
Released one year early by the club to grab an opportunity to Manly, Kelly was only eyeing the chance to learn from more senior teammates with a view to hopefully getting a chance later in the season.
Speaking to media a few days before learning of his impending debut, Kelly said the prospect for greater opportunity and a bit of a change made him receptive to the Sea Eagles' offer.
"The northern beaches and Gold Coast beaches are pretty similar so it was good!" Kelly laughed of the move down to Manly.
"I was down here for the first part of pre-season by myself and it was a bit tough but I was talking to 'Baz' [Barrett] and he said to give him a yell if I need a hand with anything.
"Once my girlfriend moved down after Christmas I was all good. We've got an apartment in Dee Why and settled in just after Boxing Day and been pretty good since. It only took two or three weeks to get used to it down here and I'm pretty comfortable now."
Kelly spent his junior days at the Ballina Seagulls – with a stint at the Lennox Head Dolphins – before a local first grade call-up with Ballina as a 17-year-old caught the eye of the Titans and a spell in the NYC there. He worked as a teacher's aide as part of the NRL's requirement for NYC players to work or study alongside playing and got a start with the NSW under-20s Origin team alongside fellow new Manly recruit Jackson Hastings.
Of his goals this year, Kelly was originally just hoping for some better injury luck and a taste of first grade.
"[I wanted to] maintain the year without any injuries because I had a little niggle last year, [work on] my defence in centre and hopefully down the line get a crack at NRL with the boys," he said.
"Slowly squeeze into centre or wing, wherever the opportunity comes. I just need to keep performing. I'm not too picky, whatever pops up."
Kelly's best position though is clearly centre, although he helped create one try and scored one of his own in a dominant first half against the Rabbitohs at Campbelltown in a trial three weeks before Round 1.
He admitted he didn't recall much of that game due to going off with a head knock at half-time but enjoyed the chance to link up with Dylan Walker, the man who will be his centre partner against the Eels on Sunday.
"It was all right. Once I get that first touch I feel comfortable after that. I was playing outside Walks so that's a good bloke to pair up with. It was a good hit-out with the boys and I think I performed all right," he said of his trial effort.
"I'm one of the rookies but I ask a lot of questions. We have 'Greeny' (Blake Green), 'Chez' (Daly Cherry-Evans), Jono [Wright], [Jorge] Taufau… they're all experienced and helping me out heaps," he added.
Kelly will slot in on Manly's left edge on Sunday next to Jorge Taufua in Steve Matai's old position while Walker will assume Lyon's mantle on the right. With Lyon's retirement last year before Kelly's arrival and Matai's inability to train in the off-season before being forced into retirement, the 20-year-old admits he hasn't even met the pair yet but would love a chance to pick their brains.
"I haven't met Lyon or Matai yet. They've carved up the centre spot for the whole time I've been growing up and watching them. I'd love to get to meet them and get to know them," he said.