Mitch Jennings, Illawarra Mercury
It came as a shock to many, but Matt Prior’s NSW call-up came as no surprise to those who know the Thirroul product well – it actually followed a pretty familiar script.
The Sharks hard-nut will become the fourth-oldest debutant in the Blues history when, at 31, he plays his first Origin match at ANZ Stadium on Sunday.
It’s difficult to fathom given the crossroad he found himself at back in 2013, just three years after winning he 2010 premiership with the Dragons. At the point, it looked far more likely that he’d be pulling on a Thirroul Butchers jersey at the age of 30 than a NSW jumper.
Perhaps a victim of his own versatility, Prior was unwanted by the Dragons and the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook with offers from their rivals.
Ultimately Cronulla, who were barely in the other side an ASADA scandal, threw him a lifeline but he played just 10 first grade games in 2014.
That he’d emerge just two years later as a key figure in the Sharks first ever premiership appeared the unlikeliest of stories, but not for his former Thirroul coach Phil Ostwald.
Ostwald first coached the “gangly, awkward looking” Prior in the under 6’s, and then later as a teenager, and has seen him pull the same bounce-back act time and again.
“He’s best mates with my young bloke so he was like part of the family,” Ostwald said.
“I coached him in his first year of footy and for a about three or four years there and I took over again when he was in the [under] 14s and 15s.
“He got a bit disillusioned going through around that 14-15-16 age group and really lost interest there. He was missing out on all the school rep sides and he wasn’t getting recognised very much back then.
“He was even thinking of giving it up actually but he just hung in there and eventually a few doors started opening up.
“I think it’s a good story for anyone to look at, Matty’s just one of those guys who hung in there.
“He’s just got a real passion for the game, a few opportunities came along and he’s taken them with both hands. It’s a credit to him.”
Not that Prior’s famously laid-back nature wasn’t frustrating at times, with Ostwald admitting he had to give him the odd rev-up.
“Something I used to tell him, and it used to make him laugh, was ‘there’s another couple of gears there mate, change gears please’,” Ostwald said.
“That big frame of his, I remember when he was in the 14s he was one of those guys who could stand in tackles and had this massive palm and he’d just throw guys out of the way, it was funny to watch.
“He’s one of those guys who just went through the motions a little bit but, once he realised he had a bit more to offer, he started using it that’s when he went ahead in leaps and bounds.
“He’s easy to coach, there’s no garbage in him, there’s no attitude. He’s really laid back Matty. He’s nature’s gentleman, he’s quiet by nature, but he’s got a big determination underneath that.”
That determination has brought him to the brink of an Origin series victory to go with two premierships
“It’s enormous, there’s a buzz around town about Matty,” Ostwald said.
“He’s such a likeable guy, he’s and done the whole town, and the Butchers club, very proud.”