Gold Coast skipper Ryan James says the NRL’s youngest front-rower, 18-year-old Moeaki Fotuaika, is ready to step up in the do-or-die derby clash against Brisbane Broncos that will feature some of Queensland’s best emerging talent at Cbus Super Stadium on Sunday.
Fotuaika has become somewhat the forgotten Titan in recent weeks as his minutes on the field have been reduced, while the focus has been on State of Origin squad men James, Jai Arrow and Jarrod Wallace, the aggressive Keegan Hipgrave, and 19-year-old five-eighth Alexander Brimson.
Fotuaika, who doesn’t turn 19 until mid-November, has benefitted from seven games at the top level. But his match-time has had to be limited due to the stamina of James, Wallace and Arrow in the middle and the maturing of Max King until injured in round 14.
After a strong debut against the Raiders in round nine, when injuries forced him to play 40 minutes in the middle, he has not had more than 24 minutes of game time in his last four appearances - one of those matches cut to a minute against South Sydney because of concussion that saw him unable to return to the field.
Yet that could change on Sunday in a match that will see 'Mo' come up against Broncos young guns Tevita Pangai jnr, 22, Jaydn Su’a 20, Joe Ofahengaue 22 and Jake Turpin, 21.
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With the Origin players and King missing, Konrad Hurrell and Mitch Rein will be on the bench alongside Fotuaika and Morgan Boyle - in his first NRL appearance since round 8 [he has played just one Intrust Super Cup game since].
So Fotuaika will take on new responsibility and likely thrown into the action much sooner than he has been.
"I'm pretty excited for him to hopefully get more minutes," said James, who was only 18 when he debuted for the Titans in 2010, five months older than Fotuaika who is the club's youngest first-timer.
"He's got the motor for it. He punched out 40 minutes on debut against Canberra and most weeks he played 80 minutes in the under-20s in the front row last year.
"I think the longer the game goes on the better he'll get.
"He gives 100 per cent and does everything to the best of his ability for the team, the little one per cent things that teammates notice.
"And football comes natural too him. You sometimes forget he's only 18 still."
The quietly-spoken Fotuaika – who gives the impression nothing overawes him – keeps a simple attitude to his development: do the basics right during, whatever time he gets on the field, and be thankful for the opportunity.
"I do hope I get a few more minutes on the field [against the Broncos] but, if not, I'll just keep doing what I am doing and bring that energy off the bench," he said. "My job is to carry the ball with intent and get the boss on a roll.
"All the boys have to take it upon themselves to step up with Jarrod and Jai out, it is a big challenge for us. They are leaders of our team and do a lot of work and this is a big brother v little brother clash for sure.
"But I feel I'm starting to find my feet and trying to play good footy for the team."
The Titans have seven front-rowers on contract for next season in James, Wallace, King, Boyle, this Sunday’s starting prop Jack Stockwell, Leilani Latu and Fotuaika. Yet the teenager could be the most precocious talent of them all.
After amazing the Titans camp with his strength and effort in pre-season, he has carried on the big impression with his temperament, maturity and efficiency in what he does during his seven appearances after being thrown into open-age football for the first time in Tweed Heads Intrust Super Cup team for six games.
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"Everyone has been pretty impressed with what he has done for such a young guy," said Titans hooker Mitch Rein.
"He had a huge pre-season, is one of the strongest in the squad and one of the fittest for a front-rower. But to take it onto the field with the performances he has been coming up with, with limited opportunities, has been outstanding.
"He's not tall but he has good leg drive and they struggle to take him down which shows what work he did in the pre-season has paid off."