The path from touch football to the NRL has been trodden by some of the leading halves of the modern game, and Gold Coast Titans teenager AJ Brimson is determined to follow in those footsteps.
Scott Prince and Benji Marshall are among a number of NRL stars to have waxed lyrical about how the touch football skills honed in their youth enabled them to maximise their talents as professional league players.
In his autobiography, Marshall went as far as to say that “everything I would eventually do when I played rugby league came because of what I learnt on the touch football field”.
The 19-year-old Brimson played alongside rising NRL star Kalyn Ponga in the Queensland under 15 touch side that swept all before it in 2013 before joining powerhouse Gold Coast league school Keebra Park High.
“Touch was my life back then,” Brimson told NRL.com.
“When I went to Keebra Park when I was 15 I didn’t really know how to play rugby league.
“I knew how to step and run around people but I didn’t know how to play as a halfback, but I reckon touch helped me with my ball skills, agility and with defensive movements.
“In touch it is all about trusting inside defenders. That all comes together in league especially as a halfback defending on an edge.”
It has all come together for Brimson since his move to Keebra Park and then his development in the Titans system.
He was the Titans’ Mal Meninga Cup player of the year in 2016 and the club’s joint NYC player of the year in 2017, while also making that competition’s team of the season at five-eighth.
He set himself the goal in 2017 of making the Queensland under 20s side and did so.
Brimson, who is contracted to the Titans until the end of 2020, paid tribute to the systems that have been vital in his development.
“It was just so professional at Keebra Park and with previous students like Benji Marshall, Corey Norman and Te Maire Martin all coming through there it gave me great belief in the programs they had set.
“A lot of really good halves have come through there.
“I really like it here now at the Gold Coast Titans. I have a lot of respect for the club and I am stoked to be in the rookie squad.
“I am still in and around the first graders and I am getting a lot out of it.
“I am learning as much as I can from Ash Taylor and asking him questions every time we train.”
Greg Lenton, Brimson’s former schoolboy coach at Keebra Park, has no doubt his former pupil will carve out an NRL career like so many naturally gifted players who have come to the game relatively late.
“AJ definitely can go all the way,” he said.
“There are a few kids who have come through the program and gone on who didn’t come out of the coaching manual.
“Benji had virtually never played rugby league and Te Maire Martin was the same. Greg Eastwood and Bodene Thompson were both soccer players.
“They don’t come to you as robots because they haven’t had rugby league jammed into them since they were five-years-old.
“AJ Brimson had these outstanding skills that you could see had come from touch football, like Benji and Te Maire.
“I have always believed that what makes players special is their unique gifts and not the actual coaching they’ve had.”
Lenton said Brimson’s off-field qualities would also assist his rise to the top.
“AJ took a while to learn the complexities of the game but slowly and surely he has climbed the rungs and is now getting everything he deserves,” he said.
“He is a very mature young guy who always tries to do the right thing. He was always first to training and last to leave. He never missed sessions and did all his gym work.
“He is a very focussed kid.
“I reckon he could be a good foil for Ash Taylor, who I think is a great footballer, because everyone will be zeroing in on him.”