He was a late bloomer without an NRL contract.
Yet, Josh Mantellato made sure that when his opportunity came, he was ready.
Commuting from Wyong to Newcastle four times a week on a personal trainer’s salary, the towering winger was determined to realise his dream of playing in the NRL.
So when he was offered a chance to train with the NRL squad in late 2012 for seven weeks, he jumped at the opportunity.
Actually, he ran his lungs out.
He declared his arrival at the Knights by beating Mr Fitness, Kurt Gidley, in the beep test.
It was pre-season in Newcastle and Wayne Bennett had his troops sweating.
For the winger, it was his chance to impress.
But instead of snaring an NRL contract, he finished up his training block and started the 2013 season playing reserve grade.
No contract. Just match payments.
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“The way I made my debut is, I was at work on a Tuesday and got a phone call,” Mantellato told the Our Town Our Team podcast.
“Aku (Uate) has a bit of an injury and they needed me to fill in.
“I turned up on Wednesday and recognised everyone from pre-season and got asked to come again on Friday for captains run.
“It all went from there.”
A week earlier, Rick Stone, who was coach of the NSW Cup team, pulled Mantellato aside and told him he’s the next player in line for an NRL call-up.
The following week, he’s filling in for an injured Uate at training.
And while Uate isn’t anywhere to be seen, Mantellato thinks he’s just filling in.
Even when the backs break up into groups for video work and the assistant coach is tipping him on the South Sydney winger he’s set to mark, Mantellato is confused.
“I didn’t really believe it until Wayne told me face to face, I was in and that was the afternoon on the Friday,” he said.
“After captain’s run is done, Wayne strolls over and says; ‘Josh you’re in’. My head was about to explode… and then he said; ‘you’re kicking as well’.”
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It was a mad dash back to the Central Coast to pack is bag before the team bus pulled in to grab him on the way to Homebush.
When he stepped onto the bus he was greeted with a cheer from Willie Mason.
“The bus picked me up on the way and when I got on the bus, I found this to be pretty cool, a 26-year-old feeling like he’s 17, Willie Mason is like; ‘yeah Mantree, get up here’,” he recalled.
“He had a seat saved for me. Soaking up that experience was unreal.”
After rooming With Alex McKinnon and picking his brain, Mantellato arrived with the team at ANZ Stadium to make his NRL debut, on a wet and slippery night.
But he’d only learned of his first grade start roughly 24 hours earlier so when Danny Buderus asked if he had another pair of boots, he shook his head.
“I remember putting my boots on and I only had one pair of boots, the moulded Blades and Danny Buderus came up to me, the nicest bloke in the world, and goes; ‘he Josh, umm, have you got studs?’ and I go ‘no, I don’t this is my only pair of boots’,” he said.
“ANZ, when it’s wet, it’s slippery but luckily it didn’t effect me.”
At the end of 80 minutes, he’d scored a try on debut and kicked three goals.
He also left the field with a couple of broken ribs.
“With about 10 minutes to go, I took a 20 metre restart and I had the Burgess brother in front of me and Issac Luke and I thought I’d go the smaller guy and he absolutely folded me,” Mantellato said.
“He popped a few of my ribs and they went click. I told Danny Buderus, who was running water, he said; ‘we have 10 minutes to go and no subs left, you can do it’.”
While the Knights lost the game, the debut was a success, but he didn’t end up securing a first-grade contract until the end of the season.
“I didn’t get my first contract until after I played my first NRL game,” he said.
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