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.
* * * * *
You’re not alone if JJ Felise’s eight games of first-grade don’t stand out in your mind like some other individual performances throughout the 2016 season.
There were no tries. No linebreaks. No spectacular tackles.
All eight of the 20-year-old’s appearances came off the interchange bench in the middle rounds of the year when injuries and State of Origin commitments created a spot.
That might seem like a negative appraisal, but in fact, it’s a glowing endorsement from the coaching staff as to just how easily the Logan Brothers junior settled into first-grade.
In a way, the fact you didn’t notice him is a great testament to his maturity.
“The biggest thing that we noticed straight away about JJ was how comfortable he looked from the start,” Head Coach Jason Taylor reflected about the Holden Cup star.
“His first game against the Melbourne Storm at Leichhardt Oval was a tough game that went into extra time and he just didn’t look out of place for a second, which when you stop and think about it, is an incredible thing for a prop on debut against that pack.
“In all his performances throughout the year, he really handled the step up.
“We used him eight times off the bench and we would have used him more if we needed.
“We felt absolutely comfortable about his performances, knowing he could and would do what was needed.
“I think that’s a great reflection of where someone is at when, as a coaching staff, you’re comfortable to use them as soon as needed, even though they’re still eligible for U/20’s.”
Felise’s performances at a Holden Cup level — particularly in the opening six games of the year before his eventual first-grade debut in Round 7 — were nothing short of exceptional as he averaged 13 runs for 146 metres and 22 tackles per game.
It was clear that the Keebra Park graduate was ready for a step-up, but whether he was ready to successful transition into first-grade still remained to be seen.
But as Taylor enthused, the transition couldn’t have gone any simpler.
“JJ is a great kid and he’s got a really good head on his shoulders, so when we told him he was making his debut, he was excited, but just focused on what was needed,” he said.
“His first two games were absolute opposites — that Melbourne game at Leichhardt and then Canberra in Canberra — but looking back, it was probably a really good lesson for him of how savage the NRL can be and the absolute need for week-to-week consistency.
“Because, to be playing in the front row of the NRL, at that age, isn’t at all easy.
“It’s a tough position to play at that level, and for him to be able to handle it at that age was great for us this season, and really exciting for where he can get to in the future.
“He’s only young, and front rowers in rugby league tend to mature a bit later, so there’s no telling just how far he can go and what he could develop into as a player.”
MAKING THE LEAP SERIES