From My Waterloo………To Grade

I doubt my Dad was expecting to witness the birth of an international career on the day he laced football boots onto my tiny feet and helped me struggle into the Whalan Warriors' under-six jumper for the first time, those 20-odd years ago. What I did leave him with that day was something to remember.

The Warriors' first sniff of battle came when we travelled down to the 'big smoke', Sydney to play a South's junior side called Waterloo at Moore Park, the huge paddock which lies on the shadows of the Sydney Cricket Ground. From what I can remember, I was overawed by the occasion. By the last ding-a-ling of the fulltime bell that day, I was a mess. I'd played an absolute 'shocker' despite the fact I'd 'scored' a try with my first touch of the ball, come close to scoring another in the second half, and made some hits which surprised my mighty-mite team-mates…..and probably me a s well.

The recall of my first run is almost surreal, still imprinted in my memory bank. I think it was our halfback, a snowy-haired kid named Jamie Cassin, who passed me the ball shortly after the kick-off. I clutched the old pigskin to my chest, and to the vast amusement of all present, did an about-turn from the Waterloo defence and sprinted towards my own tryline, skillfully evading a couple of my team-mates who tried to stop me. In the second half I made a good break and backed up my dive over the line with some very enthusiastic whooping and howling. But I was the only one celebrating. Back down the paddock the bloody referee had called 'knock on', and I'd planted the ball over the quarterline anyway! I still squirm when the 'olds' talk about that day…………………..

My first taste of representative football came when I was picked for the New South Wales Primary Schools side in 1979, though I was not the selector's first choice as the number five winger. They named the Blues team after a knockout tournament in which I played winger and fullback for Metro-West, a side made up kids from schools in the western suburbs. While I didn't really expect to make the cut I couldn't help but feel a tinge of sadness when M. Geyer was not read out over the PA. My disappointment was short-lived as is the way with kids, and by the time I lobbed to Whalan Public School the following morning I had forgotten all about the state team, and was absorbed in laying handball in the cement courtyard area.

At assembly my teacher, a red-headed sports nut named Mr Brindley, called for me to step out of line and face the other kids. I can tell you I was nervous because I thought he'd caught me out for doing something wrong and that I was about to get a bucketing in front of the entire Whalan Primary School. Instead, Mr Brindley cleared his throat and announced: 'Mark doesn't know this yet but one of the State under-12 boys has been ruled out of the team because he is too old….and Mark has been selected……

The response was extraordinary. You would have thought old Brindley had called a public holiday, judging by the amount of clapping and cheering. All the time I was blushing like a beetroot, squirming with embarrassment. I was a pretty timid kid in that way, I hated crowds and I hated being the centre of too much attention………………………..

….When I was 15 going on 16 I sprouted 5 inches during the summer, up to 6ft 2ins (188cm). He wanted to use my size in the forwards, so he whacked me in at lock and gave me a pretty hefty workload. The team went so well we were promoted to first division. The fact that I was enjoying what I was doing showed in my onfield efforts. Pretty soon I had built something of a reputation as a player with potential.

St Marys is a good feeder for Penrith. The Panthers had signed the club's golden-haired forward, a young goer named John Cartwright, the year I started with them and he had become a bit of a hero to the younger blokes. He'd given us something to chase, something to aspire to and for the first time in my life I was starting to get serious about trying to make it into grade.

It was a good move. The following year, 1984, we won the premiership, beating Tregear 2-0 in the grand final, and I was reaping the rewards of being with a winning outfit. By now I was starting to look like the bloke who was never going to stop growing. At 16 I was six foot five inches (188cm) and weighing in at 12stone 8lbs (80 kilos). My cousin Wayne Codey handed me down a pair of old battered shoulder pads and they were my shield when it came to making the big hits.

……………………………I finished the season by making the St Mary's rep. Team which played a tournament against sides from Hawkesbury, Mount Druitt and Penrith. I tackled my way to being named the player of the series and when the dust had settled I was asked by Penrith first-grade Coach Tim Sheens and the Panthers' under-23s secretary Cliff Cartwright if I wanted to train with the club's Jersey Flegg team. Did I!!! I was thrilled. In fact I was the first to show up at the first training session….a revelation which might surprise some people now.

……………..I can be an emotional bloke, and I think I started crying. I'd made it. I'd friggin' well made it. Not long after that day I signed a contract worth $2,000 - the most money I'd ever seen in one hit.

I promptly went out and bought the family a decent stereo system.

I was still in shock….I had made it into grade football.