Anthony Don began the 2014 season as a late bloomer who proved the year before he could handle the NRL as a back-up player.
He finished the season as the Titans’ top try scorer who’d proved he now belongs in the NRL.
The Grafton-raised Don, who debuted for the Titans five months short of his 26th birthday in round six of 2013 after being called up from Burleigh Bears, was back with the Bears at the start of this season despite being added to the NRL pre-season full-time training squad.
It was round 5, in the clash against the Storm in Melbourne, before he saw first grade action when David Mead opened up an opportunity when he moved to fullback for the injured William Zillman.
‘Boogie’, as he has been known to mates since his childhood, made an instant impact – propping on the right wing, steadying and kicking towards the posts on the last play, for Mead to pluck the ball before Billy Slater could grasp it and scoring a try.
It was Don who did more try-scoring that any other Titan from then, bagging nine in 13 games which also gave him the best strike-rate in the team.
Yet he found himself back with the Bears again when the full complement of wingers was available for the round 13 clash with Penrith, by which time Kalifa Faifai Loa was in form and providing the Titans with a plethora of quality wingers.
Don scored two try hat-tricks for Burleigh, and the Titans showed faith by re-signing him for two years, but if you ask Don what were the key ingredients to finding belief in his right to be a regular NRL performer, it was more to do with his defence.
“The main area where I had to improve was defensively,” said Don. “I got dropped from missing some tackles; the opposition was scoring tries going down my edge.
“So my theory is if you have your defence right pretty much everything will flow on from that. It was an area I was told I had to work on and knew I had to work on and that became my main focus.
“A lot was mental preparation; when you’re thinking about the game and preparing for a match, think about making your tackles as much as making runs.
“I did some extras at training with Gilly after each session and just watched videos to see if I was doing anything wrong. And working on combinations with players I was on that aside with too was important, be it Jimmy [James Roberts] or Taka [Brad Takairangi].”
Don played 13 NRL games in 2014 and finished the season strongly, retaining his position after his recall for the round 20 clash in Newcastle against the Knights. He scored a long distance try from a break down the right side by Roberts in the most emotional day of the year, the Rise for Alex round in honour of wheelchair-bound Knights forward Alex McKinnon.
The event also had special significance for Don. He attended university in Newcastle when he was studying to be a high school PE teacher, and worked on Knights match days behind the bar to pay his way through uni, while playing rugby union for university side.
To be back for the first time as a player, and playing a prominent role in one of the Titans’ greatest wins considering the number of players missing, was a highlight of his career.
Yet Don knows his season had ups and downs and he wants to, and has to, improve for 2015.
“I started a bit slow and didn’t have a lot of trial form,” he reflected. “I felt I had a good pre-season but didn’t convert it to form on the field early in the season so I went through Burleigh and just waited for my opportunities.”
He admits it was difficult going back to the Intrust Super Cup after seven games of solid form but his six-try haul in two games for the Bears had nothing to do with any resentment.
“It was obviously hard because you want to belong and feel you’re getting better and better in first grade and feel like you deserve to be there on your form,” he said. “But when you get dropped but you just have to play well for Burleigh and hope to get a chance again.
“It’s definitely hard going back because you’re not playing at big stadiums, they’re virtually basic grounds with a few hundred people. But luckily Burleigh were going great at the time and I was scoring tries on the back of backline movements, so I wasn’t scoring tries in anger or anything, that’s just how it happened.
“I feel a lot more confident now; feel I belong in first grade now and feel I have to cement a starting spot in the best 17 each week whereas last year I thought I was behind a few in the 17 and had to wait my chance. Now I want to be the first winger picked each week.”
And that’s an ominous reminder to outside backs in the Titans squads and NRL opponents.
The quietly-spoken and popular winger, who thought as a player in his mid-20s he’d lost a chance to become an NRL but now has 16 tries in 28 appearances, has a desire to boogie some more on the NRL stage.
NEXT: Brad Takairangi
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