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The $300 punt that brought one-time Rooster back to Bunnies

Long-time Roosters juniors coach Anthony Barnes hasn't missed many in more than 25 years in this game.

But on a sunny July day three years ago, Barnes – the bloke whose coaching alma mater features names like Gasnier, Thompson, Tuivasa-Sheck, Mitchell and Radley – wandered across Henson Park to greet another of them.

"'Shit'," Barnes says to former North Sydney warhorse Willie Leyshon, who was briefly coached by him almost 20 years ago and can't help but laugh when recounting the story.

"'Probably shouldn't have let you have that one, he's going to be a good one'."

In a week where the Roosters-Rabbitohs rivalry has come with 11 secret herbs and spices and a few more to boot, Blake Taaffe has emerged as the latest talent to tread the well-worn path between the foundation clubs.

Blake Taaffe's journey to the NRL

For at best in the beginning, $300 a game.

Taaffe is the 22-year-old Rabbitoh that found his way back to South Sydney the long way, who now finds himself pitched into Latrell Mitchell's No.1 jersey.

This time last year, Wayne Bennett brought Taaffe into the Bunnies bubble to train opposite Corey Allan, who stepped into Mitchell's same sizeable shoes and played the house down.

Taaffe boasts just four first-grade games to his name, but it's one that is intrinsically linked to Redfern royalty with 60s stalwart Kevin Longbottom counted among a bevvy of rugby league relatives.

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But after his family shifted from La Perouse to the Central Coast, a teenaged Taaffe ended up in the Roosters feeder system under Barnes.

"I ended up getting a contract from the Sydney Roosters but I went through a bit of a tough time there, I struggled to make the side," Taaffe told the Rabbitohs website recently.

"I just don't think I fit into their culture as well as I did [at Souths]."

Enter Leyshon, the former Bears, Storm and Eels forward whose own promising career was cut short at just 26 by an eye-watering run of injuries.

Leyshon was still in the game in 2018 as North Sydney's under 20s coach, and in need of a five-eighth.

"Blake was up the coast playing an A-Grade game [for Berkeley Vale] at Erina at the time and we were short on numbers, we had a lot of South Sydney kids that kept getting called up to reserve grade," Leyshon says.

"I managed to get him a week before the June 30 cut-off.

Kevin 'Lummy' Longbottom played fullback in South Sydney's 1967 premiership side.
Kevin 'Lummy' Longbottom played fullback in South Sydney's 1967 premiership side.

"I tell you what, he would've been earning a lot more playing A-Grade on the Central Coast.

"I think we might have got him for $300 a win and $100 a loss, not much more than that.

"It was match payments, certainly no sign-on fee or anything like that. It might have been a six-month contract.

"I think he was a bit hesitant at the time but he's cousins with Josh Cook [the current Rabbitohs hooker bound for the Bulldogs next year] so I think that helped convince him.

"Jake O'Meley [son of Canterbury cult hero and Roosters prop Mark] was another fella we had that year too.

"So I spoke to Ogre [O'Meley senior] when I was sussing out Blake and he gave him a rap as well which didn't hurt either.

"He ended up coming down and from the first training session I knew he was going to be good."

It turns out Barnes was thinking the same thing, right around the same time Leyshon was bidding to bring Taaffe to the Bears.

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"I certainly remember that game you're talking about because that was the game we were planning to finally play him," Barnes says.

"It wasn't that we didn't want Blake or told him he wouldn't make it, but we had a pretty good side and it was hard to fit him in.

"I was planning to give him a run against Norths that weekend, then it turns out he's already joined them.

"He killed it that day, scored a try and was the best on the field, and I remember thinking, 'there's one that might have got away'."

Given his cardinal and myrtle pedigree, it's surprising Taaffe - who has since represented NSW at under-20 level - ended up in the colours of their age-old enemy at all.

When Souths Juniors president Keith McCraw presented Taaffe's debut NRL jersey earlier this year, the list of South Sydney and La Perouse connections ran long.

Kevin "Lummy" Longbottom's name looms largest given the part he played in the Rabbitohs 1967 grand final triumph, when three missed goals belied his booming efforts off the tee across the decade.

Taaffe will now get his crack at the same No.1 jersey as Longbottom, having trod the same path as Mitchell across Anzac Parade – with a $300-a-win detour along the way.

Acknowledgement of Country

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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