It’s not the easiest transition to make.
Every year, the country’s most brightest and promising rugby league talent look to make the step up from the U/20’s Holden Cup program to full-time training and extended NRL squads in the hope of becoming one of first-grade stars they looked up to as a kid.
In 2017, seven Wests Tigers players will look to make that leap.
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While he’ll formally make the leap to the Club’s extended NRL squad in 2017, young gun Jacob Liddle already has some idea of just what lies ahead of him.
Not that that necessarily makes the road ahead any easier, however.
When he begins pre-season training in early November, it will be a case of third time around for the Central Coast junior, who has already spent the last two years mixing it with the Club’s biggest names at training — despite still being eligible for Holden Cup.
Back in late 2014, Liddle’s first pre-season session was at just 18 years of age.
He caught the train down from Wyong, and from the first session, was ready to learn.
Ripping into tackles, listening to those around him and making an immediate impression on the coaching staff, Liddle would quickly find his feet in the Holden Cup system — named by his teammates as the Holden Cup Player of the Year come season’s end.
Another pre-season would come around in 2015 and again, Liddle would impress.
He’d head back into the Holden Cup system to begin the season, but it was clear from the outset that his class and composure was ready to be challenged in other grades.
Starting Round 1 in the Intrust Super Premiership team, Liddle returned to the Holden Cup team in Round 6 — playing the next six games before stepping back up to reserve grade.
It would be no surprise that upon that return, the Holden Cup side began an undefeated streak for more than two months, with Liddle at the forefront of his side’s attack.
In those six games, he’d chalk up seven tries and five linebreaks.
His talent was evident.
Not getting ahead of himself, however, the 19-year-old continued to plug away in the lower grades before an opportunity was thrown his way midway through the season.
With Robbie Farah away on State of Origin duties, Matt Ballin sidelined from a knee reconstruction and Manaia Cherrington unavailable with a foot injury, Liddle was called in to make his first-grade debut as a teenager against a physically dominant Bulldogs team.
“I’m nervous, but I’m just trying to approach this like any other game and do what I do in every other game,” Liddle said the day before running out at ANZ Stadium for his debut.
“Play strong and play fast, and hopefully it all goes good.”
Little did he know how true those words would be.
Coming off the bench to add some spark late in the first half, the Central Coast product soon found himself in the thick of the action in the middle of the field.
With representative forwards trying to test and tire the youngster, Liddle would hold firm — making every one of his tackles in a 34-minute stint — before backing up on the inside and weaving his way over the line to score a memorable four-pointer on debut.
The Bulldogs would go on to win 32-22 that night, but to all watching — from the stands to the coaches’ box — one thing was certain.
The kid could play.
“I thought he was great,” Coach Jason Taylor said of Liddle following the match.
“Especially against a team with those big guys, his defence was superb and his try was great. He just did a really solid job and he didn’t look out of place for a second, which is really exciting for us. From a defensive perspective, he handled everything they threw at him well. We were confident he would handle tonight, and he did.”
“Jacob is a very gifted footballer and there’s no doubt that he has a big future.”
Second-tier salary cap restrictions would prevent Liddle from featuring in first-grade again in 2016; instead finishing the year in reserve-grade and Holden Cup, working on his craft.
Knowing how much work lies ahead of him is a testament to Liddle’s level-headedness — his ability to remain switched on and not get ahead of himself in any way.
On the field, his composure is clear to see.
He knows when to run and when to pass.
He times his attacks and when he choose to go, he does so with precision.
But off the field is perhaps just as important for Liddle, who knows the journey ahead is ten times longer than the journey he’s already completed to get to where he is.
Re-signing during the year, Liddle is keen for that journey to be at Wests Tigers.
“I’m really excited to be at this club for the next two seasons,” Liddle said.
“I had a really good pre-season under my belt with the NRL squad and that helped me build up a bit for this year. I feel like I’m keeping up with the pace of the game better.
“I’ve learned a lot from the senior guys here at the Club — they are very professional — and I’m looking forward to learning even more from them in the years to come.”
Liddle will return to Wests Tigers pre-season training in early November, as he’s done for the last three years, and while a lot will be the same, it’ll be different too.
He’ll keep learning from the coaching staff and senior players around him, and he’ll keep making the two-hour trip from the Central Coast to training, but this time with the knowledge that he can handle the demands that are required of a first-grade player.
Now, his challenge is to show he can produce that every week, and improve the skills and talents that are clearly evident in his game.
If his story so far is anything to go by, it’s definitely a challenge worth watching out for.
MAKING THE LEAP SERIES