From waiting in the wings to lining up opposite future immortal Cameron Smith in a preliminary final, Raiders hooker Tom Starling’s year has been anything but predictable.
When the NRL season resumed in May, as Canberra’s third-string hooker, Starling faced the prospect of playing no rugby league whatsoever with reserve grade being cancelled.
“I wasn’t able to play any footy and I live and breathe playing footy,” he said.
“When (Josh Hodgson) went down it was shattering for him and the team … but I just had to take my opportunity with both hands, and this was my opportunity to prove what I’ve got in regular first grade.”
And seize the moment Tom Starling has – since entering the side for their round 10 boilover against the Roosters at the SCG, he’s played a pivotal role in 11 Raiders wins for just two losses.
Over that time, his combinations with halves George Williams and Jack Wighton have flourished, as has his hooker rotation with Siliva Havili.
“On the weekend, Liva started and the week before I started so we’ve got a good little rotation there and whatever Sticky sees there for that week, that’s what we’ll run with,” he said.
“Then when he can come on and play in the middle it gives me an opportunity to start running a bit more because he can slot in at nine if I’ve taken a carry.”
Starling said having Raiders first-string rake and co-captain Josh Hodgson there in a mentoring capacity has been a “massive help” since he arrived at the club prior to 2019, but especially since Hodgson has been out from injury.
“He’s all for the team and he’s like another coach,” he said of Hodgson.
“Every week we’re doing some video together and before the game he’s tipping me up on what they’re doing … It’s nothing crazy, he’s not trying to change my game style or anything, his main message is ‘go out there and do what you’ve been doing, be yourself, that’s what got you here’.”
He said that level of care Hodgson brings is emblematic of the club more widely.
“It’s a great club here, everyone cares about the club from the top to bottom, everyone’s here for the club.
“We’ve all got a similar personality where winning is the number one priority and forming friendships for life. We’re a really tight group down here and there’s a genuine hunger to win.”
He said that culture and connection amongst the playing group, coupled with the wider community, made it a no-brainer to re-sign for another two seasons.
“You’ve got people around who care for you and want the best out of you, so to be able to stay here another two years, I’m very happy with that.”