I’m not what you would call a flashy player. The fact I scored my first try last week in four years of first grade football is testament to that.
But fortunately, there will always be a few spots for guys like me. You need to have a bit of a blend these days with the reduced interchange. You need some workers, some defence-oriented guys.
Growing up, I loved watching players like Michael Crocker, Luke O’Donnell, Dallas Johnson and Matt Gillett. These were guys you really wanted to play with. I really idolised them, and that’s how I try to play my game. Now I want to be the guy that people want to play with.
I was pretty lucky to land at the Storm. I played hockey and cricket as a kid growing up in Townsville, a bit of league in Gladstone and then moved to Brisbane where I played rugby union at Villanova College, at inside centre believe it or not. I never made the rep sides, and when I finished school, I did a year at university in Brisbane, and went down to Brisbane Easts Tigers and played a year in the centres (don’t tell Jesse Bromwich that).
Paul Bunn, head of recruitment at the Storm thought it was worth experimenting with me to turn me into a front rower. I remember the prospect of being a prop not being real attractive but if it meant at 18 I had a chance with the Storm, I would jump at it. Following two years with the Storm U20s, I moved into the NRL squad at the end of 2014.
On day one of your first pre-season in first grade, you start a two-week work program. Craig Bellamy came from an era when you had to work, footy was secondary.
What happened was you come in and do weights at 5 am, and then Marika Koroibete and I would get sent off to a job site to start labouring at 6:30am, and work through till 3. Then we would drive into AAMI Park for an intense afternoon session of running hills, tackling or conditioning and you do that for two weeks straight. It’s pretty full-on.
As soon as you get through those two weeks, you certainly appreciate the privilege of being a professional footballer. The pre-season’s tough no doubt, but we’re not digging holes in 40-degree heat or working 12-hour shifts at hospitals.
I remember my first contact session at the club. I would have been barely 100 kilos when I first arrived and, looking around at the other forwards, I was one of the only non-representative players. We had New Zealand and State of Origin forwards and tough veterans like Ryan Hinchcliffe.
They’re the ones you’ve got to watch out for in those contact sessions, the old scrappers. Cameron Smith is of that ilk as well. He doesn’t have the most physically imposing body, but he’s definitely our best.
It was great for me to be exposed to the skill level of those guys throughout the pre-season. And then you finish it on the three-day “I Don’t Quit” camp.
I think when you’ve done that, you’re ready for anything the season will throw at you.
survive this, survive anything
This Storm pre-season camp has been running since Craig arrived at the club, involving first year players over three days somewhere in Victoria. You’d be surprised how far one can walk from AAMI Park. We were split into different teams and I was assigned my new-found identity as Red #2.
The first day involves physically demanding tasks designed to wear you down, fatigue you and test you. The second and third, with fatigue already set in, is where the mental challenge begins. ‘How badly do you want this’ tends to be a recurring thought.
On the last night, after two days of physically demanding work, we did a long, silent walk for hours. Not allowed to talk to anyone, it was pitch black and we were all hurting. We were then walked out into the bushland and dropped off one-by-one and told to stand guard all night, all by yourself.
The guys who run the camp would try to sneak up on you throughout the night and you had to say, ‘Halt. Who goes there?’.
The old scrappers, they’re the ones you’ve got to watch out for.
It was our last night. We were pretty fatigued, so a few boys buckled and fell asleep. The next morning, the guys who’d stood their ground all through till sunrise were allowed to have an hour’s sleep on the ground. That dirt under the summer sun felt like a king bed at a five-star hotel. The other boys had to form a standing circle around us and watch us sleep.
On the bus trip on the way back from the bush, you can’t sleep. The way they stop you from sleeping is they make you write 600 words in a journal on how you got to the Melbourne Storm, and what it means to be a Melbourne Storm player. The guys who run the camp actually count the words. Little things like that are pretty intense.
The camp is pretty rough going but, once you’re finished, there’s an incredible sense of camaraderie, especially when you get back and the whole squad’s there to greet you. There’s certainly a special bond amongst those who have completed them.
And when we’re playing, we sometimes think of how hard the pre-seasons are, and you just know that if Craig’s picked the guy next to you, that guy is going to do his job. There’s a feeling amongst the 13 guys out there that we’re always going to turn up for each other.
No matter how hard a game is, it’s never going to be as hard as the pre-season.
YOU JUST NEVER KNOW …
You might think you’re far away from something. But if you just stick at it, you have no idea how close you are.
At 20, I made my NRL debut in Round 9 of the 2015 season against Parramatta, at a time when I couldn’t get much of a run in the Melbourne reserves side at training. It was after one of those stand-alone rep weekends. Jordan McLean hurt his hammy on the Monday, so he was out. Then Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Felise Kaufusi both got suspended. Then on the captain’s run, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs didn’t pull up well.
So it took four front rowers to go down in a week for me to get my debut. We won the game, too.
You just know that if Craig’s picked the guy next to you, he is going to do his job.
I managed 10 games in 2015. It was a year where I’d often get Craig Bellamy calling my phone. This is not a good thing, people. This means you’re heading back to reserve grade. 2016 was another step up where I managed 17 games including our minor premiership and playing in the NRL grand final. I was devastated to lose but for a kid who played in no rep teams it was an incredible experience to simply play in.
2017 started well. I felt like I had become a regular in the team after a few seasons focusing on developing. Then in Round 9, I ruptured my ACL against St George Illawarra. I was crying in the sheds and down in the dumps on the bus ride out of Wollongong. We were on top of the ladder and going so well, particularly after losing the grand final previous year. It was shaping up as such a promising season for us, and I couldn’t believe I wouldn’t be part of it on the field.
Later that week, I was on crutches working my way into hospital in Richmond. I was going through looking at people getting wheeled around in wheelchairs with strapped heads and debilitating diseases and all sorts of illnesses.
I knew that a lot of them were facing a lifelong struggle. And I had a bit of a moment where I realised how privileged I was to be a professional footballer. I was getting paid to rehabilitate my knee working alongside our great physios day in, day out. All without having to worry about how I was going to pay the rent.
Thinking about what a good gig I had helped me in my recovery. And now that I’ve got through a full pre-season doing full training like everyone else since December, it’s a fantastic feeling. It’s great to be treated like everyone else. I’ve still got to do my extra rehab at the gym, but otherwise I’m doing pretty well, and it was great to start the season in such a prestigious game as the World Club Challenge, and to win a bit of silverware early in the season with the boys.
THE ONE PERCENTERS
They do the one percenters so well at the Storm. For example, for my debut they flew my whole family in from Brisbane. They were even invited into the team room to listen in on Craig at the pre-game meeting.
It was my first year in grade so I was very shy. I hadn’t had much experience with Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater. But the little things – like when they went out of their way and introduced themselves to mum and dad – made such a difference.
The Storm have a parents weekend every year, they do partners events when they’ll take the girls out to the wineries or Craig will have them over for dinner, and they do things like inviting my brother on the team bus and to the team hotel when we play in Sydney.
Craig Bellamy calling your phone is not a good thing. It means you’re heading back to reserve grade.
The Storm is a great environment, but it’s also very intense. Everything is filmed, reviewed, evaluated. It’s nice to have a bit of a release at times, to have something else in your life.
I finished my commerce degree at the University of Melbourne last year and it’s something I’m pretty proud of. It took me six years to graduate – one year full-time in Brisbane and several years part-time when I arrived in Melbourne.
You’re so concentrated as a young player on the fringe, so focused on your on-field dedication and training, I guess sometimes you let some other stuff fall by the wayside. I guess doing my ACL last year gave me a little chance to get back on track with my uni work and knock that off.
One of the life lessons Craig always stresses is that the club wants us to be the best person you can be, whether you’re a baker or a chippie or a commerce student or whatever. Craig also says you don’t have to be the best front rower in the world, or Queensland, or even at the club, as long as you strive to reach your own potential. I think that’s what this club is all about. Striving to improve.
It was good to have time off last year and to be able to work on a finance tutorial and just switch off. It was also great to spend some time back home with my mum, dad and sister. I’m a Brissy boy at heart.
But I love it here at the Storm and don’t have any family down here. I suppose the Storm is my family now.
I hope I can score a couple more tries for them.
Christian Welch - Contributor