The recruitment of 18-year-old Reece Walsh is being hailed as one of the most impressive signings in Warriors history. Michael Burgess reveals how the club lured him away from the Broncos.
On February 20, Warriors' recruitment boss Peter O'Sullivan walked into a Gold Coast cafe, ahead of his most important coffee of the year.
The veteran negotiator is no stranger to the meet and greet – having worked for the Storm and Roosters over a long NRL career - but the next hour was going to be pivotal.
O'Sullivan was meeting Reece Walsh for the first time.
Walsh was visiting his parents in Nerang, a small town 10 kilometres inland from the Gold Coast strip. It was an ideal location, compared to a rendezvous in Brisbane, in the heart of Broncos territory.
Walsh had been impressive in a Broncos trial the previous night, though O'Sullivan noted he had faded in the second half.
"I said 'mate, you did well but you got tired'. You are going to have to work on that motor," recalls O'Sullivan. "He said, 'Yeah, it's funny when you haven't played for 18 months'."
Walsh's previous game was in September 2019, as all second-tier football had been canned last year.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," says O'Sullivan. "I hadn't even registered that kids in that position, with the way Covid was, they hadn't played footy.
"That put it in perspective, to do what he did, without having played in 18 months. All of a sudden I went from thinking he was an 8/10 to thinking 'holy hell'."
The recruitment of Walsh is being hailed as a mighty coup, one of the most impressive signings in Warriors history.
Listen: Mad Monday Podcast- Episode 12: Put A 100 Cents On It. This week, the guys chat about the Warriors' heartbreaking loss, go over the "State of O" squads and "Hurley's Heroes" makes a return ...
It's early days but the teenager is an undoubted talent and to snare him from the Broncos, one of the biggest clubs in the NRL, seems remarkable.
"Generally you don't get the opportunity with those sorts of kids," says O'Sullivan. "They're usually wrapped up. We were fortunate that wasn't the case."
O'Sullivan had seen Walsh play for the Queensland Under-16 team in 2018, then watched him in the Tweed Heads Seagulls Under-18 side, alongside Xavier Coates. But the lightbulb moment came in September 2019.
"I'd seen him as a 15-year-old but probably when the antenna started spruiking up was when the Australian Schoolboys played the New Zealand Under-19s at Redcliffe," says O'Sullivan.
Dylan Brown and Paul Turner were among the opposition while Walsh was alongside Sam Walker in the green and gold.
"That day I thought 'This kid's pretty special'," says O"Sullivan. "You see what he's doing now - that's what he was doing then. The first thing you noticed with Reece is his balance. He's got that beautiful thing called speed on top of the balance and incredible game sense.
"There's not much more to it, after that, as a fullback. You know they're going to have to get a big motor, they are going to have to work hard on their defensive systems. But he had the ingredients to succeed."
On January 29 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck had confirmed his end of season departure from the Warriors, though the club had known a few weeks before. O'Sullivan dusted off his notebook and began to canvass contenders.
Three weeks later, O'Sullivan flew to Brisbane, headed for Kitchener Park, a suburban ground in the east of the city.
The Broncos were playing Wynnum-Manly, the alma mater of Wally Lewis and Gene Miles, in their first trial of 2021. Walsh was listed at fullback, on a night where mostly young and development players were used.
A few thousand were in attendance, though O'Sullivan failed to blend in with the crowd.
"First thing I walked in and the Broncos' CEO saw me," recalls O'Sullivan. "So I didn't stay too inconspicuous. But they wouldn't have known what I was there for.
"You can try to stay as inconspicuous as you like [but] a fair few people know my melon around footy."
It didn't take long for O'Sullivan's hunch to be confirmed.
"All those things I had seen before, they hadn't gone away," says O'Sullivan. "But what really impressed me was his vision. He put a try on early with a pass in the left hand corner. We've probably seen six or seven of them in the past few weeks."
Walsh also looked tough enough. The Broncos had made a mess of the kick-off, and prop Matt Lodge was tackled near the sideline.
"It's not a great place to be on play two, in the first minute," said O'Sullivan. "[But] he went in, took a hit up, straight into the middle of the forwards.
"So contact wasn't a worry, he had the class, he had the big plays. Watching that game, I decided he was the man to replace Roger. It was that simple. From then on we had to set about trying to sign him, which is not an easy task, getting him off the Broncos."
The Nerang cafe meeting came the following morning, where O'Sullivan began to sell the Warriors' vision to Walsh.
"I'm not p***ing in my own pocket but I am pretty good at that," says O'Sullivan. "I'm good at it because you just tell the truth. These are your strengths, this is what we're looking for, Roger is going and the spot is yours, basically, if you want it."
The pair discussed how Walsh had to improve in certain areas, in life and football, how the Warriors would help him do that and the positives he would bring to the club.
O'Sullivan told him he might play six to 10 games this year, then be "ready to rock and roll round one in 2022".
The meeting went well but O'Sullivan was nervous. Walsh, who was off contract for 2022, had impressed in the trial, with the first line of the match report on the Broncos website pointing out the young fullback "gave a glimpse of his huge potential".
"I wasn't worried about other clubs, but extremely worried about the Broncos doing something," says O'Sullivan. "That was always a concern, you are talking about a big powerful club."
On the same day, chief executive Cameron George received an email from O'Sullivan.
"Sully doesn't send you many links to players," says George. "But he was pretty excited about this one. I said go for it."
It took a few weeks to marry schedules, but it was eventually arranged for Walsh to visit the Warriors in Terrigal. He flew to Sydney after Broncos training, meeting O'Sullivan and club consultant Phil Gould for dinner.
"Peter was meeting Reece at the airport and I live close by so he asked me if I wanted to come to dinner," says Gould. "I was just part of the meet and greet."
But O'Sullivan feels Gould aided the process, saying: "Phil's got that charisma and a bit of sparkle about him that the players love."
The next morning Walsh toured the club's facilities in Terrigal, meeting coach Nathan Brown and George.
"I told him it wasn't about talent – it was about what you actually learn," said George. "His talent will always be there but you need the right standards in your life, on and off the field and our club, with Nathan Brown, with Roger, with Tohu [Harris], could provide that education, for a young kid."
Later Walsh met Tuivasa-Sheck and Harris at the Island Time Espresso Bar, close to Terrigal beach.
After that meeting, George walked back with Walsh, who appeared to be a bit nervous, as the Warriors duo headed back to training.
"He said he wanted a photo with Roger, but was a bit scared about asking him," says George.
George called Tuivasa-Sheck over for a snap, in front of about 20 onlookers at the traffic lights.
"That made me realise how important Roger was going to be in this whole process," says George. "How much Reece respected him, looked up to him."
Warriors halves Kodi Nikorima and Sean O'Sullivan had lunch with the teenager, before he returned to Sydney airport for the flight back, ahead of Broncos training the next day.
Terms were agreed over the next few days, though it was still a frenetic time.
"Once we got the agreement, it was all guns blazing," said O'Sullivan. "From the time we got it to having the paperwork ready [and contract lodged] was hours not days."
When the Broncos were informed of the player's intentions, they made a counter-offer.
"They said 'we will do this, we will do that'," recalls O'Sullivan. "I was proud of the maturity that they [Walsh and his manager] showed in that regard. Their word was their bond, they weren't going to entertain anything else.
"We did a good sell, we had a good opportunity for him to come into first grade. But we had a long-term plan for him, in the best interests of the player and the club and I think that appealed to Reece."