Tom Trbojevic's impact on fans has been compared to Benji Marshall at his peak and the Manly superstar's remarkable run of form since overcoming a hamstring injury earlier this season is set to revolutionise the way NRL players train.
Trbojevic has scored 25 tries and produced 27 try assists in just 15 matches to help propel the Sea Eagles from cellar dwellers before his round-six return to a top-four finals berth, but statistics don't tell the full story of his influence on the game this year.
"The only thing I could compare it to is Benji, who at his peak was mesmerising," said Sea Eagles CEO Stephen Humphreys, who was at the helm of the Wests Tigers during a period when kids around Australia wanted to be able to sidestep or flick pass like Marshall.
"People couldn't wait to watch Benji to see what he might do in a game, and that is the same with Tom."
Yet fans haven't seen a lot of Trbojevic during the past three seasons as a series of hamstring injuries limited him to just 12 appearances for Manly in 2019, seven in 2020 and 15 of 24 matches this year, although three of those he missed were due to Origin and another was because of a facial injury.
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The way he has come back to consistently produce match-winning performances has Sea Eagles doctor Nathan Gibbs considering introducing every Manly player to the training program credited for keeping him fit this season.
Trbojevic's brilliant streak of form has been compared to that of Jarryd Hayne for Parramatta in 2009 but if he can unlock the NRL's best defence to spark Manly to victory against Melbourne on Friday night the Sea Eagles No.1 will be elevated to another level.
It's a stunning turnaround from the start to the season when the Sea Eagles lost their opening four matches after he suffered a hamstring tear and had to apologise over video footage of him in a foot race outside a Manly pub.
Having suffered a hamstring injury in January, Trbojevic returned to pre-season training but the second tear in February forced him to miss the opening five rounds.
It was the 24-year-old's fifth hamstring tear in less than two years and the most recent injuries were in his right leg, whereas the previous three had been in his left leg.
Since his return in the round six defeat of the Titans, Trbojevic has modified his training under the guidance of Gibbs and with no further hamstring problems he has been able to play with a confidence exhibited only by the game's best players.
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"Turbo has come back well from every hammy tear he has had but for three years he has had different parts of his left or right hammy being torn," said Gibbs, who worked for 18 seasons with the Sydney Swans.
"This is a problem across all sports, where lots of players have recurrent or new hamstring tears as a problem in their careers.
"It is especially common in AFL because of the nature of how they play, with players running and bending over at full speed to pick the ball up off the ground, which puts a strain on your hamstrings.
"Lots of things have been done with Turbo to assess a reason why he keeps injuring his hammies. All of those have helped but none have stopped the recurrence."
Until now it seems, and Gibbs believes the reason is an individualised training program devised by hamstring specialist David Opar and his team at the SPRINT Research Centre at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
High-speed training the key
Hamstring tears are the No.1 injury concern in AFL but specialised training has reduced the risk of recurrence during the season from 33 per cent to 20 per cent.
"The biggest thing they pointed out was that he just wasn't running fast enough as part of a strength program," Gibbs said. "The bottom line being that if you want your hammy to be able to run fast you have to practise running fast.
"If you are running 100 metres at the Olympics you practice running fast because that is what you are trying to do but football teams don't do fast running in their training programs because a lot of players don't actually run full speed in a game – ever."
Trbojevic has made 30 line breaks, 115 tackle breaks and average 221 running metres with the ball in his 15 matches for Manly this season.
However, he doesn't always hit full stride so Sea Eagles performance staff will often pull him out of a training session to perform a series of sprints at up to 95% capacity.
"Sometimes we would take him out of football-specific training to make sure he did his high-speed running and [coach] Des Hasler has been massively supportive," Gibbs said.
"Des would say 'this is more important'. We have just been really OCD in trying to make sure we tick all of those boxes to help prevent his hammies tearing again.
"We have done this specifically for Turbo and not only has he come back, and not injured his hammy, but he has also played exceptionally well so we are going to try and do it for everyone now.
"We are trying to introduce high-speed running as part of the normal program for everyone because it will arguably help players to avoid hammy strains but it might also help them to play better."
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'You know he is going to do something special'
Without the fear of a recurring hamstring injury, Trbojevic is playing with great confidence but he also possesses a vision matched by only the best players and it was why NSW coach Brad Fittler was able to give him a roaming role when selected at centre in this year's Origin series.
Besides scoring a hat-trick of tries and setting up another two in last weekend's 44-18 defeat of North Queensland, Trbojevic produced 19 tackle breaks and ran 302 metres with the ball, while never having to make a tackle.
Sea Eagles players say they anticipate Trbojevic creating something every time he gets the ball.
"When Turbo is coming from the back you know he is going to do something special so you are kind of prepared," said winger Jason Saab, who has scored 22 tries in the 15 matches Trbojevic has played and just one in the nine he has missed.
"Half the time he makes that break or puts you down the sideline you are ready for it. That obviously helps for me but even our ball-players in the middle and on the edges come alive, as well, when Turbo is in and around the ball.
"Having Turbo there takes the pressure off other players. Defensively teams are looking at Turbo. Sometimes he can just be the bait that makes it so easy for our halves."
Hasler said Trbojevic was still developing and pointed out that the fullback had not previously been in a team that qualified for the top four.
"He has had an amazing year and if you look back over the history of just the last 20 years there have been some players that have come through who capture the imagination," Hasler said.
"That is what Tommy does and it is a real accolade for him, but it is the way he goes about it. He carries himself so well and represents himself, his family and his club so well. He deserves everything that has come his way."
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Humphreys said the Mona Vale Raiders product was a role model and inspiration for junior players.
"I see it with my own young ones," Humphreys said. "The kids all used to want to be Benji, and do the Benji flick or the Benji sidestep, but now they all want to be Tom. He is definitely their favourite player and they all want to have the No.1 on their back.
"It is fantastic to see, and he is such a terrific young man. He would rather not have all the attention, quite frankly, but he takes the responsibility seriously and he has always got time for kids and sponsors and members alike.
"No request is too difficult for Tom, or his brother Jake for that matter. They are great young men and we are very fortunate to have them."
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