When Ben Trbojevic and Sione Fainu strolled the sidelines of Lottoland the night of Josh Schuster’s NRL debut, they did more than just retrieve the ball.
For Schuster, his long-time friends were a calming influence in more ways than one.
All three came to Manly at the age of 14. Trbojevic met Schuster in the Sea Eagles Pathways program and re-united again with Fainu during his final two years of schooling at renowned rugby league school, Westfield Sports High.
The trio have risen through the grades and have played junior representative footy together.
And in between, they enjoy nothing more than ribbing one another or trying to get the upper hand in anything they do.
So, it is why, when Trbojevic and Fainu, acting in the role of Manly ball-boys that night of September 5 as part of the NRL Co-VID restrictions last year, played a major support role to Schuster without even knowing it.
Like all players on the eve of their NRL debut, the nerves got hold of Schuster ahead of the clash with Wests Tigers.
I couldn’t even sleep the night beforeJosh Schuster
“When I was warming up, I saw Benny and Sione on the sidelines as the ball-boys. To just see their familiar faces, it helped calmed me down a little.
“Playing at Lottoland also made a big difference as I played the majority of my junior rep footy there, so it made me even more comfortable.
“But yeah, seeing Benny and Sione on the sidelines, certainly helped.
“It was probably the first time, too, that Benny wasn’t being cheeky. I guess he was probably more excited for me.”
That excitement was later shared by many. The skilful five-eighth had turned in a fine NRL debut performance before a syndesmosis injury saw him leave the field. The injury ended his season.
The 19-year-old's performance led to opposition five-eighth Benji Marshall to declare it was the “best debut I've seen from a young kid in my time, ever”
“It was obviously a dream come true, playing against one of my idols in Benji Marshall,’’ Schuster said.
“As nice as it was to have Benji say what he said, I don’t get caught up with that stuff. My focus is on developing my game and what’s in front of me.”
After recovering from injury, Schuster has benefited during the pre-season not only in the gym but also from training alongside experienced halves, Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran.
“When I first heard Kieran was coming to the club, I was very happy,’’ Schuster said.
“He has played for his country and has played over 200 first grade games, so it would be pretty dumb of me not to pick his brain at every training session.
“This season, one of my goals is to be a consistent first grader. I just want to learn from every training session as there is still plenty of improvement in me.”
Schuster also praised the Sea Eagles Pathways program for his personal development as a player and as a person.
“It meant the world to me. The pathways system, they treat it very professionally, like an actual first grade system,’’ Schuster said.
“The people involved, they care about you, not just performance wise but on and off the field.
“There are so many players now in our NRL squad who have come from the lower grades. To play junior footy with a lot of them, from development, Harold Matthews, SG Ball, U20s, and to now first grade, is the best feeling.
“Manly has been my home since the age of 14. I’m very happy here.”