Why Hess is ready for his biggest test

Lindsay Johnston has been on both sides of the selection conundrum. 

Thrust into a New South Wales team that had known nothing but failure after just 18 first grade games for North Sydney in Game Two of the 1983 State of Origin series, Johnston didn't have time to think about whether he was ready.

For almost 35 years he has held the record inside the New South Wales Rugby League as the youngest forward to ever debut in Origin at 19 years and 107 days, a record he confessed to NRL.com was not his to claim.

"There was actually a mistake there; I was 21, not 19. They've made a mistake. I was born in 1962," Johnston said.

In more recent years he has held the position as a selector for the Country Rugby League and holds firm to the adage that if you're good enough, you're old enough.

Not since Nate Myles made his debut for the Maroons a month shy of his 21st birthday in 2006 has a forward as young as Coen Hess been invited to play with the big boys yet no one who has seen him wreak havoc doubts he will handle the occasion.

He's already impressed Queensland captain Cameron Smith by his sheer size.

"That's the first time I've seen him in real life, face-to-face," said Smith, who hasn't yet had the pleasure of trying to tackle Hess in his 22 career games to date.

"Watching him on tele he looked big and he's bigger in real life."

 


Johnston recalls vividly learning of his rapid elevation into rugby league's elite.

Little more than 12 months after moving down from Gunnedah he heard his selection for NSW on the radio, received a Blues T-shirt and tracksuit, trained alongside Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Geoff Gerard and Steve Mortimer before facing up to the likes of Wally Lewis, Gene Miles, Mal Meninga, Chris Close and Bryan Niebling.

"When you're young like that you relish the chance to pit yourself against players like that," Johnston told NRL.com.

"It was exciting but I wasn't intimidated or anything like that. I relished the opportunity to get in amongst it and I'm sure most players are the same.

"If someone picks you you're not going to say, 'No, I'm not ready. I don't want to do it.' I've seen players over the years that I think they've rushed into Origin but when I was picked, Pat Jarvis was out injured, Craig Young had an injury and I'd been playing pretty good football too.

"Anybody that takes the football field never thinks that they're going to be dominated or beaten."

Especially when they stand 6-foot-3 and weigh 111 kilograms and have been compared in likeness to the character of Ivan Drago from the Rocky movies, the figment of Sylvester Stallone's imagination – and similar to the 'Hess Express' – was nicknamed 'The Siberian Express'.

"Even in the bush they're getting bigger and stronger," says Johnston. "You only went to the gym if you were injured when we were coming through but all the young people now live at the gym."

When you make your NRL debut a week after your 19th birthday you have to grow up quick but Hess has also experienced tragedy off the field which has helped to mould him into a young man with perspective and maturity.

In 2015 Hess wore the No.11 jersey for the Queensland under-20s in honour of his friend Regan Grieve who tragically passed away earlier that year and he spoke openly of the desire within the Cowboys to respect his memory every time they played.

More than his physical development, it is his emotional maturity that has impressed veteran teammates most.

"For 'Hessy', the biggest thing for him is that he is willing to learn all the time," says Cowboys and Maroons back-rower Gavin Cooper.

"Whether it's something small or it's him actually asking he's really willing to learn. Some other kids might not be comfortable asking but he is.

"No matter what the team has needed of him this year he's done it, whether it's on the right edge or in the middle. Now with 'Lowey' (Ethan Lowe) getting back to some form up there he's been shifted into the middle and hasn't dropped his lip."

Adds Johnathan Thurston: "He's handled everything that's been thrown at him.

"He's a confident kid – he's quiet – but he just loves playing footy.

"We all can see what he can do so it's about applying himself now and making sure that he gets his head right for the game."

There's no reason to suggest Hess isn't embarking on the start of a wonderful Origin career and in time we will all be able to look back and remember the time we wondered whether he was ready. And laugh.