May 11, 2021

Sports Legend

NRL News | Cult hero Zac Cini’s memorable debut follows in the footsteps of the greats


Mark Levy is the host of The 2GB Wide World of Sports Radio Show. Tune in from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Thursday!

We may have found the latest cult hero in the rugby league, already dubbed the ‘Mullet Man of Minchinbury’.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that legendary coach Ronnie Palmer put on the boots at WIN Stadium or that tennis legend Boris Becker made the move to the rugby league when you first saw Zac Cini warming up with his teammates of the Wests Tigers.

It was finally a day the 20-year-old will never forget.

Companions go ballistic as Tigers newbies try for the first time

Cini was called up to the squad to replace James Roberts for the game against the St George Illawarra Dragons and it wasn’t long before his family and friends considered filling a section of the grandstand at the southern end of the pitch. .

TV cameras zoomed in on them after the red-haired winger jumped on a loose ball, only to be denied by the bunker just after half-time. Soon after, Daine Laurie threw a pass that put Cini in the corner, right in front of his pals.

Locals say it’s Wollongong’s biggest joy since another cult hero, Mark ‘Piggy’ Riddell, jumped the fence to applaud his own essay in 2002.

What a moment for the young dude, who grew up in the Penrith Panthers junior system but dreamed of playing for Wests Tigers and following in the footsteps of his childhood hero Benji Marshall after seeing him in the 2005 Grand Final.

Cini also admired Robbie Farah, who showcased the ‘Mullet Man’ with his first jersey in the hangars on Sunday.

These moments last a lifetime and they should be celebrated by everyone in the rugby league.

It got me thinking of some of the other memorable NRL debuts and names like Andrew Johns, Billy Slater, Sonny Bill Williams, Chris Sandow, Luke Brooks and Charlie Staines automatically come to mind.

A star was born when the Eighth Immortal made his debut at 19 for the Newcastle Knights in their opener against South Sydney in 1994. “Joey” scored 23 points with two tries, seven goals and a basket as the Knights prevailed 43-14.

Johns went on to become one of the greatest players we’ve ever seen and ended his career with two premieres in 1997 and 2001, playing a record 249 games for the Knights.

Billy Slater made a name for himself when Melbourne opened the 2003 season against Cronulla at Shark Park, where “Billy the Kid” inspired the Storm’s biggest comeback in club history. They were leading 22-0 when a 19-year-old Slater scored a 60-yard try after slipping away from the half-model.

Slater retired a one-club player who made seven major finals, 323 NRL games, 31 games for Queensland and 30 tests for Australia.

Sonny Bill Williams was a massive executioner for the Canterbury Bulldogs in their 2004 premier season. At 18, the talented Kiwi scored one try and put on another as the Dogs kicked off their campaign with a 48-14 victory over the Parramatta Eels.

Sonny Bill has become a Kiwi International and one of 21 players to have won several Rugby World Cups.

Chris Sandow burst onto the scene in 2008 for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who sat at the bottom of the ladder. The little half-back kicked the winning basket for the Bunnies in the 35-28 win over the Warriors in Auckland, their first across the ditch since 1999.

Sandow ended his first season winning the Dally M Rookie of the Year Award and continued to play for Parramatta, before moving on to the English Super League.

Luke Brooks set the clock back at the traditional home of the rugby league in 2013, as the No.7 guided Wests Tigers to a stunning 34-18 victory over St George Illawarra. The 18-year-old hosted two tries and scored one of his own as the Tigers spoiled the Dragons’ 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1963 Grand Final.

Brooks played 155 games with the Wests Tigers and was named New York’s Team of the Year in their breakout season.

Then you have the Forbes, NSW teenager who presented a show in Kogarah for his pals who traded positions to see Charlie Staines score four tries on his debut. The 19-year-old became the first player to score four tries in his first game since Jordan Atkins in 2008.

Staines has become an important part of the Panthers, who won 17 in a row last year to claim the JJ Giltinan Shield as minor prime ministers. They remain undefeated in 2021.

I am constantly amazed at the skill, maturity and athleticism of these brilliant teenagers who have the opportunity to play in the NRL at such a young age.

Joseph Suaalii will have his chance to shine this weekend, when the 17-year-old is named to the Roosters squad to tackle Parramatta on Friday night. What a baptism of fire: a blockbuster in front of 30,000 people at Bankwest Stadium.

I have no doubt that Suaalii will be the next name added to the list of players who shine in their debut.

** If you can think of any other memorable debuts or would like to participate, email me through the comments page on the Wide World of Sports radio show here