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NRL is not just for the young

When Chris Lewis ran out onto the AAMI Park for Round 4 of the NRL, the commentators noted that at the age of 27, he was oldest player to debut for Melbourne Storm. 

While this was an interesting fact and one that may one day win you the round at your local trivia night, his achievement also showed age is no barrier to achieving a dream if you put in the work. 

In reporting on Melbourne's last interchange of the match, which saw the second rower run out for the final few moments of the game, Channel 9 commentator Billy Slater remarked that Lewis had spent the past six years working as a school teacher. 

However, the Sunshine Coast Falcons forward had also been a reliable and consistent performer for his side for a number of seasons as well, and was named Second Rower of the Year in last year’s Intrust Super Cup Team of the Year.  

Chris Lewis - Certainly super talented

In his debut, Lewis played against a Souths Sydney Rabbitohs side who were without their regular five-eighth Cody Walker, who himself was considered "old" in some quarters when he made his NRL debut in 2016 at the age of 26. 

Walker, signed from Easts Tigers to the Rabbitohs in 2014 after claiming The Courier-Mail Medal as player of the year the season beforehand, moved to the club for the 2015 season, before finally making his debut in the top grade after a season in the NSW Cup with North Sydney Bears. 

If you’re good enough, you’re old enough the saying goes, and here are just some of the examples of this going the opposite way.

These players had worked hard and excelled for many seasons in the Intrust Super Cup and NSW equivalent before being granted their opportunity, proving that the state-based competitions are genuine pathways to the NRL.

Starting a new career earlier this year at Marsden High School as a health and physical education teacher, Souths Logan Magpies halfback Darren Nicholls was another player who had to wait his turn before getting his shot at the NRL and made news as “the oldest rookie in the NRL” when at the age of 29 he ran out in the famous red v of the St George Illawarra Dragons in 2018.

In the lead-up, Nicholls played in the lower grades for Penrith, Wests Tigers, South Sydney and for Redcliffe Dolphins, featuring in a number of grand finals along the way.

However, there is no doubting rugby league loves its young stars, and of the six players to make their debuts in the NRL competition in Round 4 (four of them from the Intrust Super Cup), four were aged 22 or younger.

Tom Gilbert, who at the age of 19 looks to have a fruitful career ahead of him given his maturity off the field and durability on the field, joined Broncos duo Cory Paix (20) and Tesi Niu (18) in making their debuts after relatively short stints at Cup level.

Gilbert's ready to rumble

This past weekend, the North Queensland Cowboys went a step further and featured exciting youngster Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who hadn't even played one game in the Intrust Super Cup, having starred in the under 18 Auswide Bank Mal Meninga Cup and under 20 Hastings Deering Colts competition last year.

Gilbert, Paix and Niu all backup their debut appearances this weekend in a great boost to their confidence.

However, NRL is far from easy, and if they are to miss the cut on “Team List Tuesday” in coming weeks, they can take comfort in the path of Burleigh Bears and now Gold Coast Titans halfback Jamal Fogarty, who has gone the long way round to feature for the club where he first made his NRL debut back in 2017 and began playing in their colours in 2012 in the National Youth Competition.

Now aged 26, his time improving his skills in the Intrust Super Cup is already paying off, with last year’s Petero Civoniceva Medal winner playing a key, if understated, part in guiding the Titans to a breakthrough win in Round 4 over the Wests Tigers.

Fogarty has stated his increased maturity made him more equipped to play NRL now than in 2017 when he first made two appearances for the Titans

There is no question that his path, and that of Lewis, Nicholls and Walker, should provide hope to the talented players of the Intrust Super Cup who still have eyes on an NRL prize, but fear that time has slipped them by.  

And if anyone needs further proof that the NRL is not just a game for the young... just look back to who was the captain of the team when Lewis ran out as Melbourne Storm player 201.

Cameron Smith is currently the oldest player in the competition, and at the age of 36, is arguably still one of the best.

While the former Queensland Maroons skipper might not be as quick as he once was, and his play might not be the most exciting thing to witness in a contest that produces spectacular takes, amazing sidesteps and powerful, bone-rattling charges each week, Smith’s smarts, knowledge of the game (overall, and not just of his own), ability to lift those who play alongside him and general play-making ability means that he remains, after almost 20 years at the top, a force to be reckoned with.  

So, here’s a cheer to rugby league, the greatest game of all, and one that is fun for all ages.