When Brandon Smith stripped down to his undies to perform the haka in front of the other players in New Zealand’s ANZAC Test squad, the 21-year-old Melbourne Storm rookie tried to emulate Kiwis hooker Issac Luke.
It is something that Smith, who last weekend made an impressive NRL starting debut for the Storm in place of Australian and Queensland captain Cameron Smith, has been doing almost since he began playing as a junior for the Waiheke Rams.
"I am pretty much identical to Bully in my style of play," Smith said of Luke. "I have looked up to him as a player all my life.
"I was 12 when I watched him first run out for the Kiwis in 2008. I just love everything about him, his aggressiveness and the way he runs the ball. That is exactly how I play the game."
The selection of a player who was then yet to have played an NRL match in the extended Kiwis squad for the ANZAC Test in May surprised many but not those who had watched Smith’s development at the North Queensland Cowboys and in Melbourne.
The New Zealand selectors see Smith as a potential back-up to Luke at the Rugby League World Cup and their view was vindicated when he and Brodie Croft led a youthful Storm team to a 23-22 victory over the Cowboys last Saturday in the absence of Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk.
Smith scored a try, set up another and made 26 tackles, while Croft calmly landed the match winning field goal to spark claims that headline writers in Melbourne would only need to alter two letters when Smith and Croft take over from Smith and Cronk.
"Cameron Smith is a master of the game, he has got all the mental aspects sussed out and I am really enjoying learning off him."
"I have gone from never kicking the ball in a game to kicking it probably three or four times in a game.
"It won’t be perfected for a lot of years, I reckon, but I am working on it and Cameron has been showing me a few things. He has been showing me goalkicking as well so hopefully I can wrap my head around that."
Playing for the Storm against Sydney Roosters in Adelaide on Saturday or wearing the New Zealand jersey at the World Cup is a long way from where Smith ever thought rugby league would take him when he first began playing at three years of age.
It was only after he moved to Townsville as a teenager when brother Dylan landed an under 20s contract with the Cowboys that Smith seriously contemplated a career in the game.
"I went to Kirwan State High and played a bit of school footy," he said. "I never thought I would kick on but I got the opportunity to play for Queensland.
"Last year I got the call up for the Junior Kiwis. That was the biggest honour for me and after that game my manager told me there was some interest from the Storm.
"Throughout my life the two players I have always looked up to are Issac Luke and Cameron Smith so to get the opportunity to train and play with one of them was something I had to jump on."
It is a decision that has paid off and after recovering from a broken patella suffered in a pre-season training collision with fellow Kiwis prospect Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Smith had hoped his form for Melbourne’s feeder club Sunshine Coast Falcons would earn him representative honours – although he never imagined being selected for his country.
"I was pretty filthy I didn’t make the Queensland Residents team when they announced it at the club," Smith said. "Then at the very last moment they said I would be going away with the Kiwis team for the camp. It was a real shock to me but very pleasing."
Not that Smith would every consider swapping a New Zealand jersey for the chance to play State of Origin for Queensland or represent Australia.
"The way I see I was bought up in New Zealand so that makes me a New Zealander, my parents are both Kiwis and I am a proud Maori so I would wear black and white over maroon or green and gold any day of the week."
"For me, there is nothing better than doing a haka in front of the friends and family, and especially before a big game like a Kiwis game."
Smith hopes to one day lead the haka for New Zealand as Luke now does and stripped down to his undies for the role with the Junior Kiwis before the ANZAC Test in Canberra.
"At training we had all the Junior Kiwis boys and they were all in their undies as well so I led that and I thought I would go hard because Bully always puts a lot of mana and spirit into his hakas and I wanted to do the same," he said.
"It really lifts the spirit but you need to calm down because it can get you firing before the game and you don’t want that too early."
After being given a taste of camp with the Kiwis, Smith hopes to gain selection in David Kidwell;’s 24-man squad for the World Cup at the end of the season.
"My first goal is obviously to play first grade," he said. "I want to focus my energy on the NRL before I think about the Kiwis jersey but it is always going to be in the back of my mind. I just want to try to keep some consistency so I can hopefully put on the back and white jersey at the end of the year."
This article first appeared on RLWC2017.com