Junior Warrior Omar makes team of the year
Omar Slaimankhel says his inclusion in the Toyota Cup Team of the Year is the culmination of a season spent working tirelessly on his game with the Auckland Warriors.
But it is much more than that for his parents, who hiked for a week to escape war-ravaged Afghanistan for Pakistan so their children could have opportunities such as this.
The Slaimankhels were sent as refugees to New Zealand in 1994, when Omar was two. The talented fullback's father, who was a doctor in Afghanistan, found work as a translator in an Auckland medical clinic before buying a butchery.
Seventeen years on, the third of six Slaimankhel children considers himself Afghani, speaks with a gentle Kiwi lilt, practises Islam and calls himself a Billy Slater fanatic. ''He's probably the best fullback I've ever seen play probably, work-rate wise,'' Omar says. ''There's heaps of good players like Matty Bowen and that, but someone that I aspire to is probably Slater.''
Yesterday, the 19-year-old was being touted as a rising star. With a strike rate of 38 tries in just 35 Toyota Cup matches, he could well live up to the hype. ''He's physically very strong and well-balanced and he's got very good speed,'' his coach, John Ackland, says. ''He loves playing and he's got a great deal of belief in himself.''
A fair whack of modesty, too. Slaimankhel puts his impressive points tally down to a physically imposing Warriors forward pack. ''I've got huge boys so they make it easier for me - they make all the hard yards and I just feed off them, so it's pretty easy for me I guess,'' he says. But Ackland, who was named Toyota Cup coach of the year, says his perennially positive charge has more than just good support.
''The forwards have certainly helped ... but he's got that priceless gift of anticipating what's going to happen so he can get himself to the ball,'' Ackland says. ''He's scored a lot of tries in a lot of different ways for us this year.''
He has done it while balancing the demands of study - a Bachelor of Health Science - and the strictures of his faith. Yesterday marked the end of Ramadan, which means no more training sessions on an empty stomach. ''I played through it, every game, but I was all right,'' Slaimankhel says. ''A couple of times we had night games so it wasn't too bad - by the end I could eat - but training-wise it gets pretty difficult and I think I lost a couple of kilograms.''
Nothing like the sacrifice his parents made so their son could dream of a career as a professional player. ''[My father] was pretty athletic but coming here was pretty hard and over there it was hard to make sport a career,'' he says. ''They were stoked when I told them [about the Team of the Year] ... they were real happy.''
Sydney Morning Herald