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The story of how we nearly lost the world’s best player before he’d even made his professional debut

Rugby League mistake

When we see the biggest stars of the game take centre stage, it feels like they were destined to do so. That they were always heading in this direction, that they were also going to be a rugby league star and nothing could ever change that.

But for one of the world’s best players at the moment, that certainly wasn’t the case and had things gone differently he might not be a rugby league player today.

Tom Trbojevic, or Tommy Turbo as some refer to him, has been the NRL’s best player this term and is the front runner for the prestigious Dally M Medal.

He starred in State of Origin guiding New South Wales to success and was the spark which led Manly to the top four in the NRL.

But it could have been so very different had he made a different decision in his youth. Growing up he didn’t just play rugby league. He was also a rising star in Australian rules with many tipping him to go on an be a future AFL star.

In fact, he was in the Sydney Swans academy from the age of 14 to 17 as he juggled the two sports before finally settling on rugby league.

His former Australian rules coach, Chris Smith who is still head of the Sydney Swans academy spoke, about just how close he was to becoming an AFL player in the Sydney Morning Herald: “It’s Sliding Doors, isn’t it?

“The coaches didn’t take long to realise the kid was a talent and he had the necessary character. He had a really good attitude, was there to work, didn’t get distracted easy. He was a pretty mature kid and you could tell he was self-motivated, all those things you need.

“He learnt all areas of the game. There were times when he played as a defender, as a forward, as a midfielder. He had that athletic range, he had the ability to do that.”

The Swans weren’t able to sign Trbojevic properly until he was 18 but by then he’d joined his older brother Jake in the Manly system and the moment was gone. Instead, they settled for Isaac Heeney. A similarly talented youngster who could’ve quite easily found himself playing in the NRL but instead is a star of Aussie rules. Interestingly, he’s made 111 appearances for the Swans, just one less than the number of appearances (112) Trbojevic has made for Manly.

Heeney also discussed Trbojevic’s wide-ranging talents and had a lot of praise for the would-be Swan: “You look at him now, the athlete he has become, he’s a freak of nature. I do follow the NRL closely and the numbers he is producing are ridiculous.

“You look at the players from the NRL, if there is someone you could swap from NRL to AFL, he would be one of them. He’s got a great physique for it, a bit of fitness and he would be a serious athlete in AFL or any sport really.

“You look at him and he’s just a great athlete.”

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