When Andrew Fifita and Matt Prior collected their joint player of the year awards at Cronulla’s presentation night in October, they were asked if the club could continue the success into 2017 despite change on the horizon.
The talk on the night was – who do the Sharks need to sign to replace Michael Ennis?
But the Monty Porter Medal winners were adamant. The Sharks didn’t need to sign anyone. They already had a hooker in their midst to take the club forward.
Enter Jayden Brailey.
The Aquinas Colts junior is in the UK as part of Cronulla’s 20-man World Club Challenge squad to play Wigan having not yet made his NRL debut.
It is possible that Brailey’s first competitive appearance for the Sharks will come in a game where Cronulla could be crowned world champions.
The 20-year-old impressed in Cronulla’s trial loss to Brisbane a fortnight ago, spending time at hooker and halfback. Any time coach Shane Flanagan gives Brailey on the field against Wigan would be more than a bonus, it would be the realisation of a life-long dream.
“I can’t believe I’m going over. It’s crazy, I didn’t expect it,” he said.
“It’s going to be something I’ll never forget, I already know that. The atmosphere is going to be something I’ve never experienced if I get some game time over there.
“It’s going to be a once in a lifetime thing. Not many players really get to win a premiership and get to [play in a World Club Challenge]. And this is one of my first games as an NRL player. I’m confident in my ability that I’ll be able to do it. Hopefully it all goes well.”
If Sharks fans are worried, they shouldn’t be. There is a reason Fifita, Prior and a number of his teammates back Brailey – and trust him.
The former Australian Schoolboys hooker was named the Dally M Holden Cup under-20s player of the year last season. He impressed plenty of his teammates at his first senior pre-season last year which laid the groundwork for Cronulla’s historic premiership. Brailey continued that form into last season as the young Sharks finished the Holden Cup campaign fourth but lost their two semi-finals – against grand finalists Penrith and the Sydney Roosters.
But his selection in the Holden Cup team of the year left his teammates certain that he could fill the boots of the 273-game veteran Ennis.
“I get on with the boys really well. They always give me feedback as well, how they want to receive a pass and play with me. And they’re still trying to get to know how I play as well,” Brailey said.
“[Fifita and Prior] saying that gives me a lot of confidence as well, they’re pretty high profile NRL players and if they’re saying that there’s nothing better than the people around you wanting to play with you.”
Brailey has also worked hard on his game in pre-season to make sure he is ready for the NRL. He has put on weight and done extras religiously. The input of Ennis, who has started work as a coach with the club, has been invaluable for Brailey. He is learning one on one from the man whose career best form helped lead Cronulla to a premiership.
“He comes in about two days a week. It’s good. He usually has a drill in the session and then after when we do extras he does our kicking, our passing, our defensive sort of stuff,” Brailey said.
“I’m still a young bloke but Mick has been showing me little techniques to sort of handle those bigger blokes especially. He had a really good kicking game in his career and mine is maybe not so good and he’s worked hard with me on that. He’s helped out a lot.”
Brailey also has the trust of the coach. New signing Daniel Mortimer is likely to start the season at hooker but Flanagan is a fan of Brailey and isn’t afraid to give him an opportunity. One of his best traits is that Brailey has a wise head on young shoulders. The Sharks’ under-20s captain last season, Brailey regularly leads by example with the quality and simplicity of his game.
It is something Flanagan has asked him to replicate in senior football.
“Flano just said he wants me to play with plenty of control, a simple game. Play with confidence,” Brailey said.
“He doesn’t want me to go out there all jittery, maybe too nervous and [try to] play too big of a role that I might not be able to handle. I know the role I’ve got to do. I’ve just got to give good service, make my tackles, look up count numbers and hit the right bloke.
“I’m just going to try and nail my pass and if I look up and see something I’m going to back myself.”