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Melbourne school teacher Daniel Thomas.

When Melbourne teacher Daniel Thomas started championing rugby league to school kids 14 years ago, he struggled to get traction in the Australian Rules-mad area.

But thanks to his enthusiastic efforts to develop the game in the city's outer-east, plenty of youngsters have taken a genuine interest.

The Lysterfield Primary School mentor - who also oversees 34 schools as the head sport coordinator of the Knox Region - was recently named the NRL Teacher of the Year.

"It's taken a few years to build the understanding of rugby league in the local areas because we're in very strong AFL heartland," Thomas told

Thomas was first exposed to rugby league through State of Origin in the 1980s and '90s - it was on TV because "mum loved Mal Meninga; she thought he was gorgeous".

The 'ideas man' helping grow rugby league in Victoria

But his love for the code really blossomed when the Melbourne Storm entered the NRL in 1998 and won the premiership the following year.

Back when he was a final-year student teacher, Thomas was initially handed the task of making children excited about rugby league by default.

"My supervisor, who was head of phys ed, was a massive AFL man. When it came to [rugby league] competitions and things like that, he sort of looked at me and said, 'You can do this one, this is yours to run'," Thomas said.

Thomas was the force behind establishing the Knox Gala Day, with almost 40 teams from local schools to compete in girls and boys tackle and league tag divisions this year.

The tournament has become a prime recruitment opportunity for the Eastern Raptors junior club.

My goal is for the community to see rugby league as a viable option for their children

NRL Teacher of the Year Daniel Thomas

Thomas has also keenly implemented the new League Stars program, which teaches the core skills of the sport without the contact.

While Thomas said the Storm are "everybody's second team" in Melbourne after their favourite AFL club, convincing kids to play league wasn't always easy.

"The most rewarding thing is when kids come up to me after a clinic day or gala day and say, 'This game is actually really fun, Mr Thomas. I actually had a good time'," he said.

"It's a change in mentality ... On top of that, the parents are coming back and going, 'That was actually a lot of fun, I actually understood that game. When can we do more?'

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"It wasn't originally like that in the beginning but as the years have progressed and they've continually been exposed to rugby league, it's given a variety of kids the opportunity to succeed and find a bit of enjoyment."

Thomas has already done wonders for rugby league in Melbourne but he realises there's still a long way to go.

"My end goal is for the community out here to see rugby league as a viable option for their children to play," he said.

"For me, it's for families to say, 'I want my child to get into a sport' and rugby league [isn't seen as] the ugly cousin.

"It's a solid, viable option for a community-based, engaging sport that a child can feel a sense of belonging."

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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