'Baby giraffe' graduates to great of the game
Stephen Kearney was there when Ryan Hoffman arrived in Melbourne from western Sydney in 2003 – "a baby giraffe with legs and arms everywhere" – so it was fitting he could share in the occasion of his 300th NRL game on Saturday night.
Wanting to give Hoffman a performance in which he could celebrate becoming the 27th player to reach the 300-game milestone, the Warriors seized momentum of the game early against the Titans and gave it back only fleetingly, registering a convincing 34-12 win on the Gold Coast.
As is regularly the case, Hoffman was at the heart of the Warriors' strong display, running the lead line on the left edge that has become his calling card to score his side's first try and stepping up to convert Ata Hingano's try late to record the first goal of his distinguished career.
Kearney was captain of the Storm when Hoffman made his debut off the bench in Round 6, 2003 and was pleased that as Warriors coach he could play some part in making it a milestone game to remember.
"To be honest, I didn't expect it when I first seen him," Kearney said of whether he thought Hoffman would enjoy such longevity.
"He was a bit like a baby giraffe when it has just been born with legs and arms everywhere but he's grown into the player that he is.
"The point that is being made on numerous occasions is that he stayed the same kid right the way through to be honest.
"I haven't seen him change and he's scaled the very heights of our game both here and in England and it's a real credit to him.
"He's a wonderful professional to have around and I'm just really pleased for him."
In the build-up to a game in which the Warriors needed to win to maintain contact with the top eight Hoffman deferred any talk of an individual milestone to the needs of the team but was able to reflect in the warm afterglow of a win just what it meant to join such elite company.
"I've got a great sense of pride. I'm with some great names there through the 300 club but you don't get to these milestones without great family, without great teammates and I've had a hell of a lot of luck," Hoffman said.
"I've been fortunate enough to have all those things and all those things contribute to someone's career and it's contributed to my 300 games."
As Hoffman and Kearney sat side by side in the post-match press conference on Saturday evening they reflected on their days together in Melbourne, Hoffman paying tribute to Kearney's influence on an impressionable 19-year-old.
"Steve was a great role model for myself. Being a young back-rower you wanted to try and find someone to emulate and I couldn't find anyone better than Steve Kearney," Hoffman said.
"I probably was a bit annoying for him to be quite honest because I followed him around like you wouldn't believe – I was basically attached to the hip to him.
"He showed me the way a professional footballer should be. I was very fortunate in my early days to have such a positive influence on my career."
Where Kearney influenced a young Hoffman almost 15 years ago Hoffman is now having a similar effect on the young Warriors forwards coming through the club and while he himself played it down, Kearney said there was no question the strength of Saturday's showing was in some way a tribute to their former skipper.
"It was definitely part of it, there's no doubt about that," Kearney said.
"I spoke to Ryan at the beginning of the week and the 300 coming up at the end of the game. He said that he didn't have a great deal of control over that but he was the ultimate professional and had a real focus on what he could do and what he had control over.
"I think we saw that tonight and he gave the players that too. They just wanted to focus on their jobs and to come up with a good performance."