South Perth Lions halfback Isaac Thomas, who was humbled by the outpouring of support for his historic 250th club appearance last weekend, says there remains a huge appetite for the sport in Western Australia.
Thomas is the first Lions player to ever reach the landmark and celebrated the occasion by scoring a try in a crucial win for his team that shores up a top-four spot in the WA competition heading into the finals.
Speaking to NRL.com, Thomas – who also teaches rugby league at an academy in Perth – reflected on a career that at one stage seemed headed towards an NRL contract but has nevertheless seen him achieve his rugby league dreams in his home state.
"It (the milestone) didn't sink in until Saturday when so many past players turned up and NRL WA acknowledged it the way they did," Thomas said.
"It was quite a big day with hundreds of people there to support me, it was really nice."
Thomas is a three-time winner of the state's top gong, the Ken Allan Medal, a six-time premiership-winner and seven-time recipient of the club's most outstanding player award at the Lions.
The son of a rugby league tragic, Thomas started playing league at six and got his start in first grade somewhat prematurely after "fibbing" about his age to the club's first grade coach.
"When I was 16 I managed to get a run playing first grade. The coach thought I was 17 so he gave me a run. He didn't find out until later I'd fibbed to him and told him I was 17!" Thomas laughed.
"I'm not going to lie to you, I was very scared when I was out there because I was only a little fella. I had a lot of good runs and people were saying 'this guy's good' but I think it was more I was crapping myself because I didn't want to get caught by all those giants running around wanting to rip my head off!"
Perth's ARL and later Super League club, the Western Reds (who became the Perth Reds when they joined the Super League), folded in 1997, which Thomas – a promising junior at the time – described as a sad development and one that made the pathway to NRL for aspiring local players such as himself more difficult.
"I was part of the Western Reds junior academy and then they folded when I was 13 or 14 years old which was very sad. It made things hard, I had aspirations to become an NRL player and that was going to make it difficult," he said.
"I wake up every day and I teach rugby league... I've travelled to the Cook Islands and Fiji and Tonga so even though I've not played NRL I've had so many opportunities opened up to me by playing in WA."
At about the age of 18, a friend who was helping scout for the Cronulla Sharks got Thomas a chance to trial for the NRL team and at around the same time he had an opportunity to travel to NZ with the under-18s combined affiliated states team.
"I took that opportunity and when I came back I then went over to Cronulla [and trained] with the Sharks during the trial period and pre-season. I thought I played OK over there but it wasn't my best standard of footy," he said.
There was also the homesickness factor.
"I didn't know anybody and no-one knew my name, I was being introduced as a halfback from WA and left out of the roll-call at training," he said.
"It made it a little bit hard and after a couple of months I was a bit disenchanted. I thought 'I'll go back to Perth and play another season of footy and I'll end up going back over east and having another crack at it'."
But Thomas met his future wife and was enjoying his time and success in the WA competition and despite considering a stint in the Canberra league or Queensland Cup, kept putting it off.
"I realised I was putting it off because I was happy here in Perth and I didn't need to play NRL to be meeting my rugby league dreams," he said.
"I run a rugby league academy in Rockingham. I wake up every day and I teach rugby league. Through playing for the state team over here I also made the Australian combined affiliated states team on eight occasions so I've travelled to the Cook Islands and Fiji and Tonga so even though I've not played NRL I've had so many opportunities opened up to me by playing in WA. I still feel even though I never made it as an NRL player I still made it as a rugby league player, if that makes sense."
The subject of Perth re-entering the NRL continues to be raised in expansion talks and while Thomas would love to see it happen, he isn't getting carried away with the idea.
"I've been hearing for years it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when, but that when keeps getting further and further away. With the demise of [former Super Rugby team Western] Force there are fresh talks. As much as I'd love to see it I don't know if it's going to happen.
"I really want to see it but more than anything I want to see the local football be maintained and pick up."
Thomas said an NRL presence would boost local participation and while NRL games continue to be played in Perth through the likes of the Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles – with an Origin match scheduled for 2019 – Thomas would love to see more.
"There is so much taste for rugby league here in WA," he said.
"Perth's got a taste for it, people want it but two or three times a year is not enough."
Thomas was however very appreciative of the work NRL WA has done and continues to do for the sport in WA and also for their support of him personally.
"A huge thank you to NRL WA. They're doing what they can for league here in WA, they're always lovely to me personally and I'm very thankful to them and the support they've given me along with South Perth over the last 19 years," he said.