Watene-Zelezniak shows his Panther claws

Last updated 16:37 06/04/2014
Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
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FINE DEBUT: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak in action for the Penrith Panthers last night.

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When he raised his eyes to the heavens, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak feared the footballing gods were conspiring against him as the New Zealand-born back made a historic NRL debut for Penrith last night.

The teenager from Ngaruawahia, who was told on April Fool's Day that he would be named on the wing against Canberra, kept a close eye on the weather forecast once he realised Ivan Cleary was serious.

"I was checking the weather the whole week and I was hoping it was going to be dry," said the 18-year-old who is the first Panther to score a double on his first grade debut.

Initially the devout Mormon's prayers were answered on game day but soon after kick-off  torrential rain lashed Sportingbet Stadium meaning the aspiring Kiwis international took tentative steps at times during Penrith's 12-6 victory.

"When it started raining, I was like, 'Oh no.' And I didn't have my metal studs on so I was scared I was going to slip over."

Inevitably there were some wobbly moments for the 18-year-old but those handling errors were irrelevant considering he got over the line in the 17th minute - and again in the 72nd for the match-winner - before racing to the stands to celebrate with family and friends.

"My family were proud. I had a few fly over from New Zealand ... my brother, my cousins - I'm just happy I did it for my family," he told Fairfax Media.

"I could hear all of them. I dropped a few balls, I was scratchy. When I dropped the ball I could hear them laughing and mocking me - that's my family." 

Watene-Zelezniak also thought Cleary was joking at his expense when he told the outside back he was replacing injured wing David Simmons.

"I had to ask him, 'Are you April fooling me?' " said Watene-Zelezniak, who started in the NSW Cup this year after graduating from the Panther's championship-winning under-20s squad in 2013.

"He said, 'Nah, you're getting the opportunity.' I was just stoked, I couldn't believe it. The whole week I was walking around smiling everywhere."

Watene-Zelezniak made an edgy start, turning the ball over twice and denied three potential tries before he finally crossed in the right hand corner to ease the anxiety.

He finished up with the decisive score, 13 runs for 104-metres, two tackle busts, a line break - and cramp.

Those numbers justified Cleary's decision to promote the rookie, a Penrith junior who joined the club at under-12s level.

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"We've got a lot of confidence in our junior development system here and Dallin's obviously one of our bright lights in that department," Cleary said.

"He's come through the grades as part of our winning 20s team last year, he's played NSW Cup so far this year and he was playing well.

"We always figured he was going to get targeted, he had a couple of mishaps early on but he got through it." 

Watene-Zeleniak's next assignment is likely to be against South Sydney in Penrith on Friday and eventually another obstacle has to be negotiated - the timing of his two-year mission with the Church of the Latter Day Saints.

He is likely to follow in the footsteps of Parramatta star Will Hopoate who a sabbatical from football before returning to the code this season.

"Will's amazing how he took the mission over his football career. He had a lot of faith. It's a hard decision."

- Fairfax Media

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