Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

NRL: Big back's dogged pursuit of dream ultimate DIY story

After bitter disappointment at his rejection by the Warriors, Shaun Kenny-Dowall's rise across the Tasman at the Roosters was rapid at a young age. Photo / Getty Images
After bitter disappointment at his rejection by the Warriors, Shaun Kenny-Dowall's rise across the Tasman at the Roosters was rapid at a young age. Photo / Getty Images

When Shaun Kenny-Dowall's father said no, the schoolboy remained defiant.

A month into Year 12 at Ngaruawahia High School, the 16-year-old - having been shunned by the Warriors - announced he was quitting for Sydney to pursue the NRL first grade dream.

His father, John, also has fierce determination. He had a foot amputated following a motor mower accident aged 5, and Shaun's spirit was fired watching his athlete father train in all weathers, a dedication that won John gold and silver medals in javelin and shot put at the 2000 Paralympics.

Seeing the fire in his son's eyes, John - who coached Shaun in club and representative teams - decided to join the 2004 expedition to Sydney to ensure the boy was okay. Project under way, Kenny-Dowall was ready to embark on a unique journey that would lead him into the Sydney Roosters first grade side by 2007 and becoming a mandatory Kiwi selection in the centres.

There are many stories of how players have crossed the ditch, from the 1970s lore to the TV-era pioneers like Gary Freeman, the All Black Matthew Ridge bossing his powerful Manly teammates about and Sonny Bill Williams signing his first Bulldogs contract in Auckland on the bonnet of a car. But there isn't a story to match that of the 24-year-old Kenny-Dowall. His was the ultimate DIY job, of a kid backed by his family who refused to give up.

The Warriors' rejection was a bitter blow. Kenny-Dowall was travelling from Waikato twice a week with a carload of fellow prospects, but after a month was told he was not in the top 100 for his position.

If the Auckland club's haste missed the physical potential of the giant back, they had no hope of understanding the doggedness within, one their blade was to sharpen. He walked out of the classroom and into various construction sites around the Waikato, lying about his age in order to build a war chest for Sydney. His father, a glazier, was also saving hard for the big shift.

After about five months father and son, plus two of Shaun's footballing mates, set sail, leaving John's wife Leigh and Shaun's two sisters behind. The crusade was on. It began in a six-bunk backpackers room in Coogee, communal facilities and all, where the foursome lived in a mess, the youngsters enjoying life as youngsters do while pursuing football breaks. Kenny-Dowall worked briefly for minimum wages in a burger franchise and then fudged his age again to make ornaments and jewellery.

Kenny-Dowall's rise was rapid, especially compared with the Warriors' judgment on him. He trained in the Roosters gymnasium while playing for one of their junior teams in the South Sydney competition. An agent named Darryl Mather watched Kenny-Dowall play and took him on straight away.

One thing led to another. Initially, Mather won Kenny-Dowall a Penrith contract so to be fair to the Roosters, he quit their gym. Absence made the heart grow fonder for the Roosters coaches, who wanted to know where the big lad had got to. Penrith agreed to a release on compassionate grounds.

Like all good rags-to-riches sporting stories, there was a breaking point where a return home was contemplated as the hostel raised the price for their permanent guests. Enter Lady Luck. They were in a supermarket as a sign went up for an affordable three-bedroom house and, as you do in these situations, the boys removed the sign giving them a clear run for the tenancy. You get the feeling, though, that lucky housing break or not, Kenny-Dowall wouldn't have quit just then.

"A lot of it was down to self-belief," he says. "I started playing rugby league when I was 4 years old, and that's all I knew and loved. What happened at the Warriors was a very bitter pill at the time as I had been playing very good football in the youth competition.

"What I did next was very unusual and I always had a high drive from watching my father. Rain, hail or shine he always fronted for training.

"I have come from humble beginnings which means I don't take anything for granted. It has been an awesome experience, going into the big wide world at such a young age.

"And I still reflect on what we went through. There have been some tough times for my family and I will never forget the sacrifices they made for me.

"My mother and younger sister followed us over here and that was a big thing, especially as my sister had to leave behind her schooling and friends. I don't get to see my older sister very often, which is also tough.

"That's a driving force, to never take anything for granted, and to remember what my family has done for me."

This might give him added affinity with the players of old.

Kenny-Dowall says: " We have a lot of interaction with those guys at our club and it's a privilege to hear their stories and see how far the game has come. You hear the stories about how they used to go to the pubs after training, two days before the games.

"What they went through paved the way so we could be professionals today. Mate, credit to them, and I don't know how they worked fulltime jobs and played football, as well as drinking piss, because you're still sore three days after the game."

Kenny-Dowall is well balanced, well set. And what of his two mates? One played under-20s for Souths, got married, has kids and still lives in Australia, while the other played a season for the Roosters juniors then returned to New Zealand. The NRL dream turns out in all sorts of ways.

Yesterday

The league pioneers who headed west with big dreams.

- NZ Herald

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