Crunch time for Chee Kam at Manly
"I've got to make the most of this year and play my heart out because I really want to stay at this club."
Michael Chee-Kam knows the clock is ticking. He knows it because of the number of first grade games – one – he's played in his two years on the northern beaches. He knows it because he is in the final year of a three-year deal. He knows it because the coaches told him so. This is the year.
The 22-year-old Auckland-born back-rower arrived at the club as a highly-rated 20-year-old, fresh out of a NYC Grand Final with the Raiders and a member of the NYC team of the year.
Halfway through what he is hoping will be a productive and injury-free pre-season, he tells NRL.com of his disappointment at having spent so much time on the sidelines through injury, his determination to make up for lost time, to repay the faith in the club that offered him that three-year deal, and to convince them to keep him around past this season.
Chee-Kam's troubles started all the way back in that NYC Grand Final in 2012 against Wests Tigers – a game from which names like Anthony Milford, Edrick Lee, Marika Koroibete, David Nofoaluma and more have gone on to establish themselves in first grade.
"My first year I came here [to Manly in 2013] I had a lot of people thinking that... well, I disappointed a lot of people," he says frankly.
"I only played about five games in my first year. I came from the 20s Grand Final [in 2012] where I did my AC joint in the first half, I played on and missed the whole pre-season because of my shoulder. Then I came back and tore the meniscus in my knee which put me out until about Round 10 then I did my ankle, my syndesmosis, and I was out for the season after that.
"Then last year I missed a bit of the pre-season because of my ankle then I came back for the [Auckland] Nines and dislocated my elbow in the Nines. After that I came back [in NSW Cup] about Round 12 and everything was sweet, I started getting some consistency and confidence back in my game and got called in as 18th man a few times and was lucky enough to get my debut in Round 26."
That Round 26 match was a mixed night – Chee-Kam earned his long-awaited NRL debut but an under-strength Manly side missing the likes of Matt Ballin and Jamie Buhrer was easily disposed of 30-16 by the Cowboys in Townsville, surrendering the minor premiership in the process. Chee-Kam himself got limited minutes, making four hit-ups for 32 metres and making seven tackles.
But it was more the consistent footy in NSW Cup in the lead-up to that debut that repaired his confidence.
"The main thing was confidence, I wasn't playing how I used to play back in 20s, I was a bit wary of going into tackles and getting injured but after that I got some confidence back," he says.
The coaching staff, and head coach Geoff Toovey in particular, have left Chee-Kam in no doubt as to what they expect from him if he wants to be on the Manly roster in 2016.
"Tooves said in the off season review, this is my last year and if I want to stay here then I've really got to show them that I really want to stay – so I've got to make the most of this year and play my heart out because I really want to stay at this club," he adds, the desire audible in his voice.
"Everything comes down to this last year so I've really got to do my best."
His goals, he says, are just to stay injury free and play good footy; he's targeting a Round 1 call-up to first grade and to earn enough top-grade appearances to secure a contract extension.
"I'm trying – my fitness has been good. When I debuted [in Round 26] I got a little bit of confidence in myself that I can prepare at that level. The main goal is just to stay injury free and hopefully get a crack in Round 1 and play as many first-grade games as I can and make a mark so I can get re-signed.
"Re-signing and playing good footy are the main goals. I really like this club – if I get a chance to I'll re-sign but I've got to show them the faith they've showed in me – it's my last year so I've got to make it happen."
With plenty of forwards having departed – prop Jason King has retired, lock Glenn Stewart is at the Rabbitohs, Anthony Watmough is at Parramatta – there are a couple of new names (Feleti Mateo and Willie Mason are the two big signings) to replace them, but it still seems like a changing of the guard in the Manly pack.
"There are big shoes to fill but there are holes there that us young guys can hopefully get a run and show what we've got," he says.
Formerly more of an edge back-rower, Chee-Kam has been training closer to the middle, which he says suits him fine.
"They've been training me in the middle this pre-season. I like it more; I get more of the ball and get more involved instead of hanging out on the edge... I'm trying to get my ball-playing skills up there but it's more footwork and running lines.
"It's been good learning which holes to run and the plays, little stuff, the more you're on the field the better you are for the season."
And his thoughts on returning to the scene of the crime, as it were, the Auckland Nines where he last year suffered a major injury setback?
"If I get picked I can't say no!" he laughs.
"But it'd be good – that's a confidence thing too, I'm not really thinking about injuries any more, if Nines come I'll use it to work on my fitness and little things like that but the main goal is playing in the NRL."