Playing in such an experienced team as Cronulla it can be hard for a young halfback to stand out as a leader.
When Chad Townsend returned to the club for the start of the 2016 season he walked back into the sheds at Shark Park to take the black, white and blue No.7 jersey in a team vastly different to the one he’d left two years earlier.
Michael Ennis had joined the club. James Maloney joined at the same time as Townsend to become his halves partner. Andrew Fifita, another big personality, was still there. Wade Graham was starting to blossom alongside veteran premiership-winning back-rower Luke Lewis and then NSW captain Paul Gallen.
But rather than be overawed, Townsend took it as a challenge. To stamp his authority as a halfback on this team of big game representative players and big personalities.
And, at 25-years-old and under the weight of half a century of expectation, the Yarrawarrah Tigers junior led his boyhood club to their first premiership.
Two years later and Townsend is preparing to head into the 2018 season ready to take even more responsibility in a Sharks side that will again be considered among the premiership favourites.
With Maloney replaced by the mercurial Matt Moylan whose ability to play ad lib football – and expectation from coach Shane Flanagan to do just that – will add to Cronulla’s new-look spine alongside Valentine Holmes and Jayden Brailey, Townsend’s responsibility to lead his side around the park will become even more essential.
In Maloney’s absence Townsend will also take on the goalkicking duties at Cronulla. It is just another example of the now 27-year-old taking ownership of the team.
“I always see myself as a leader. Obviously being a half you talk and control a lot of the game how it flows… I enjoy the role,” Townsend said.
“Us as a spine, they’re the most important positions on the footy field. I think it’ll take some time to get our 100 per cent best efforts out of each other but [we’re] definitely heading in the right direction.”
Townsend was excellent in Cronulla’s 24-12 trial win over the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown on Saturday night. He could be heard from the grandstand barking orders at his side and continually pinned the Tigers in their own end, controlling the game with his kicking in general play.
In a sign of Flanagan’s growing want to thrust ownership of the team on his halfback’s shoulders, one by one the coach removed the rest of his stars after the break with Cronulla leading 20-0.
Moylan was the first to come off after half-time. By the end Cronulla’s team was almost unrecognisable from the one that started, except for Townsend, who continued to boss and bully and drive his team around for the full 80 minutes.
“Chaddy was tidy. I felt a little bit for him in the last 15 or 20 [minutes]. He was out there with a lot of [different] blokes,” Flanagan said.
“There was a lot of changes there. I nearly swapped the whole team bar Chad. He was probably looking around to say ‘whose my half partner here? Or who is my hooker?’ He did a really good job in that first 50 or 60 minutes.
“They were patient. They didn’t try and do too much with the footy. We’ve been guilty of trying to score off our first set in the opposition 20 [metres] definitely in the last trial [against Manly] and even last year. They got the message loud and clear during the week what we wanted about building pressure and they did a really good job there.”
While it appears almost the perfect time for Townsend to take the next step into the representative arena, his name is rarely mentioned as a chance to wear the Blues No.7 jersey. This despite him having won a premiership and honed his craft leading big name players to wins in big games.
But with Townsend likely to come up against the returning Johnathan Thurston when Cronulla travel to Townsville for their season opener against North Queensland in a little over a week, it is apt Townsend has spent the summer working on his kicking game, an area he believes can raise him to the level of the elite No.7s like Thurston and Cooper Cronk.
“It’s an aspect of my game I’ve worked really hard on in the off-season and I know that the top halves in the competition really have an astute kicking game,” he said.
“It’s an area I really want to be the best at and I really have prided myself on that and worked hard. I was pretty happy, I thought I did kick well [against the Tigers] but that’s just the standard I’ve got to set now come the season.”