Nu Brown is back in town as the proud Hornby product prepares to live his NRL dream and play in the Auckland Nines with "the big boys".
The 19-year-old Cantabrian joined his Cronulla Sharks clubmates yesterday at a community carnival at Middleton Park - just down the road from the state house he grew up in in Hornby.
Brown's on the brink of playing with Australian and New South Wales State of Origin stars Paul Gallen and Todd Carney in the Sharks' lineup at the nines tournament this weekend. The squad are training in Christchurch for two days.
Gallen, the Sharks and NSW skipper, says Brown - a stalwart of Cronulla's national youth competition under-20 team - could have a bright rugby league future.
"He's got pretty much unlimited potential ... he's just got to put his best foot forward. I hope he gets a run in the nines; I think he should," Gallen said.
Fa'amanu (Nu) Brown described himself as "a state house kid" from Hornby, who left to join the Sharks' SG Ball under-18 team in 2011 at the age of 16.
He grew up in a big, supportive Christian family as the "youngest of nine, five boys and four girls". "There were nine of us living at one stage in [a three-bedroom state] house."
Brown said his older brothers Angus, Paul, Matthew and George were major influences on his development.
"Having them beside me has been awesome, they've been my mentors through my whole life. They're all league boys; I'm basically living their dream. My brothers have been through the hard knocks and they've always taught me not to head down that path."
In an online interview last year, he said his mum and dad, who worked hard to provide for their family, meant the world to him. Yesterday, he said: "My goal here is to make my mum and dad proud and get them into a good house."
Brown played his early football for the Hornby Panthers but New Zealand age-group coach Jeff Whittaker invited him to trial for the Halswell Hornets, who have a sister club link with the Cronulla Sharks.
Sharks NYC head coach James Shepherd spotted him at a trial in Christchurch and he got the nod to go to Sydney. He went to Endeavour Sports High School and played for the Sharks' SG Ball team, but was soon selected "a year ahead" for the under-20s and established himself in that squad last year.
The versatile Brown played in the centres, at hooker and in the halves and scored 15 tries in 2013, including four against the Dragons. He was also selected in the Junior Kiwis' train-on squad.
"I had a good season last year and it got me these opportunities to train with the NRL boys and to finally make the nines squad.
"It's a dream come true to be here with the older boys ... it's good to be back home."
Brown admits he would love to make his NRL debut this season but he has his feet firmly on the ground and is simply looking to learn as much as he can to help lead the under-20s to a national title.
But he's pleased with his progress.
"I've only been [with the Sharks] for three years and I'm already here. It's been a massive opportunity; you definitely have to take it with two hands ... but it doesn't stop here."
He's happy to play anywhere but, longer term, would like to specialise at hooker where he can use his speed "up the middle" to exploit "the roll-on" created by big forwards like Andrew Fifita and Tim Robinson.
Brown was unlucky to miss selection for Samoa's Rugby League World Cup squad last year and is keen to make the Junior Kiwis in 2014 and eventually step up to the Kiwis.
Gallen said there was "a huge difference" from playing under-20s to first grade, but Brown, "who can play anywhere in the backs", had the ability to get there.
"He's just got to train hard and keep his head down and when he gets a shot, take it."
Another former Hornby junior Penani Manumaleali has been with the Sharks since he was 16 and is in their NSW Cup reserve grade side. He isn't part of the Auckland Nines squad but Gallen said the 21-year-old former Junior Kiwi scrumhalf had "always been a real solid player".
It wasn't that long ago that he was the same age as the cluster of Christchurch kids at yesterday's carnival. He believes young Canterbury players can aspire to NRL clubs if they work hard enough
"If I can do it anyone can do it. I think you've just got to keep your head down and make a lot of sacrifices ... all the partying and the worldly things. You've got to put that down and keep your head screwed on."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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