'They turned me into a league player and I haven’t looked back'
Billy Slater’s return to the Queensland State of Origin team may give Melbourne Storm understudy Jahrome Hughes an opportunity to stake his own representative claims for Wales in the Rugby League World Cup.
Hughes, who has a Welsh grandfather, was named in Melbourne’s 21-man squad for this weekend’s match against NQ and even if he doesn’t play Storm officials predict the 22-year-old will get his chance at some stage during the Origin period after an impressive return from off-season back surgery.
The New Zealand-born fullback has been regarded as a star of the future since making his NRL debut for Gold Coast as an 18-year-old in 2013 but injuries helped conspire to make him wait another three years before getting another opportunity last season in round 12 for North Queensland.
'It is inspirational being around him'
After winning the Queensland Cup fullback of the year for a second time in 2016, Hughes moved to Melbourne in a bid to further his career under the coaching of Craig Bellamy and alongside Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk.
“Billy has been a big help to me.
“He was also injured in the pre-season so we spent a bit of time together. I learned and still are learning a lot off him. It is great for a young player coming through to learn off one of the best.
“It is inspirational being around him. You see what a great player he is and then when you see what he does behind the scenes you realise what you have to do to be a player like that. It doesn’t come easy and that was a big eye-opener for me.”
With changes to the international eligibility rules enabling players who qualify for more than one country to represent a second-tier nation if not chosen by Australia, NZ or England, Hughes has declared a desire to play for Wales at the World Cup.
Given his potential and ability, Wales officials are understood to be monitoring the form of Hughes, whose ball-playing ability and running style has drawn comparisons to Jarryd Hayne, and he is gathering documentation about his late grandfather to confirm his eligibility.
“My grandfather was from there but he passed away when my dad was young and we are doing a lot of digging now to find out about that side of the family,” Hughes said.
"It would be awesome to play in the World Cup for Wales but we are still going through the process. It is something I definitely want to do, if not at this World Cup then hopefully in the future.”
From union to league
Having grown up playing rugby union in Wellington, Hughes moved to the Gold Coast to attend school at Palm Beach-Currumbin High and began playing league alongside Titans five-eighth Kane Elgey and Manly prop Lloyd Perrett.
“They basically turned me into a league player and I haven’t looked back since,” he said. “I made really good friends at Palm Beach with guys like Kane Elgey and Lloyd Perrett. Ryan James was also there when I was younger so there were some quality players to come out of that school.”
After a stint with Sydney Roosters SG Ball team, Hughes returned to the Gold Coast to play for the Titans in 2013 and was signed last year by the Cowboys after a season with Townsville Blackhawks in the Queensland Cup.
Since recovering from his back operation, he has been playing for Melbourne’s feeder team, Sunshine Coast Falcons, and last month starred for Queensland Residents in the interstate encounter before Origin I in Brisbane.
“We are very, very happy with his development,” Storm football director Frank Ponissi said. “Given how much training he had missed in the pre-season and early part of the season we probably didn’t expect him to come back so quickly and really put up his hand for selection so soon.
“His performances for the Sunshine Coast Falcons have been absolutely outstanding, he is one of the form players in the Queensland competition and he was outstanding in the Residents game so if he doesn’t play on Saturday night he is a good chance to get a game in the next few weeks, no doubt.”