McCullough's work with the 'Chief' pays dividends
In many respects they are cut from the same cloth, so it is no surprise that Maroons debutant Andrew McCullough credits extra sessions with Michael De Vere for taking his game to the next level.
McCullough and De Vere have been working closely in private training sessions on the Brisbane hooker's short kicking game near the opposition try line.
NRL.com has watched on at Broncos training as McCullough practises over and over the deft, left-foot kicks that the retired Cameron Smith has mastered. All under De Vere's guidance.
De Vere, who won three premierships in 161 games for Brisbane and represented NSW and Australia, was listed recently by Wayne Bennett as one of the favourite players he ever coached.
De Vere was not born with the talents of a Darren Lockyer but none worked harder to extract the very best from their game than the man they call "Chief".
"Chief was the master of doing one percenters after training, and the little kicks in behind take the pressure off the halves," McCullough told NRL.com.
"The repeat sets of six in big games are so crucial these days, especially if you get a couple that lead to tries.
"It is something I am working on with him and getting the confidence to do that."
McCullough is no Smith and no Steve Walters, but there is no harder worker on his game. Like De Vere, he is the ultimate professional.
In one sense he is as ready as he is ever going to be for the opening match of the Holden State of Origin series in Melbourne on June 6.
The 28-year-old has played 225 games for the Broncos. He's tough, tackles like a demon 40 or 50 times a match and has the game smarts of a veteran. However, it is the De Vere-like extra one percent extras that have defined him.
The Saturday morning before he played in round two this year against the Cowboys, NRL.com drove past Broncos HQ and saw McCullough on his own running up and down the training field as he did the extras to get himself ready to play 80 minutes for the first time since returning from a knee reconstruction.
He said the influence and example of De Vere had set a fine lead for him to follow.
"Chief epitomises one percenters, hard work and not giving up," McCullough said.
"No-one in their right mind would have thought Chief was going to play for NSW and Australia when he first came into grade. His sheer determination and hard work got him there and the more that rubs off on me is only going to benefit."
De Vere, who does skills and kicking sessions with the Broncos, said the extra sessions McCullough had put in could well prove vital at the MCG.
"I am just happy for Macca that he has finally got his opportunity from all that hard work he's put in to improving his game," De Vere told NRL.com.
"I was the same. I wasn't blessed with natural talent. I had to work for it.
"The hours and hours of practice go towards making the difference in the big moments, especially under pressure when you are tired and fatigued you fall back on your muscle memory."
Smith made it look easy but De Vere said "threading the needle" near the line was an art form.
"We have been doing some [short kicking] sessions where I give Andrew some boxes and targets to aim for," he said.
"With the short kicks a lot of players kick it dead but you are better off kicking it too short than too long. Your best result is a try, second best is a line dropout and third best is if it pulls up short. Kick it dead and it takes all the pressure off."
De Vere worked in coaching and development at the Broncos more than a decade ago when McCullough was in the junior academy and his soldier-like ethos came to the fore.
"We would take them on army camps and test out their character, see what they were made of and teach them some resilience with different challenges," he said.
"Macca stood out in all the group. He didn't whinge or carry on. He just got on with it. He showed at 16 with his mental toughness and discipline he would have been a good soldier. You could have put him in the SAS."
He has always embraced a challenge, and the one ahead of McCullough to replace Smith does not daunt him.
"I find it exciting," he said. "I am not Cameron and I never will be, but what he has done for that jersey is remarkable.
"So I'm going to be myself. I'm pumped. There is no pressure. I'm just going to go out and do what I do."
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