The biggest untapped talent outside of the NRL.
It’s a fair rap, but one former Illawarra Cutters coach Jason Demetriou is well qualified to give having watched Shaun Nona steer two teams to state-national double crowns in the past three seasons.
Demetriou has since moved on to be Wayne Bennett’s right-hand man in Brisbane but Nona has stayed on in Wollongong as one of four Cutters players granted fulltime contracts with the Dragons on the back of their 2016 success. It makes the 26-year-old the the potential X factor in the Dragons halves equation heading into next season following the departure of Benji Marshall and fierce criticism of the club’s limp attacking performance in 2016.
The fact the Tully product passed up the chance to return home with the Townsville Blackhawks next season shows how serious the former Queensland and NSW Residents representative is about making his shot at the NRL stick. He’s also taking plenty of heart from Souths half, and long-time Queensland cup rival, Cody Walker’s breakout 2016 season after debuting at 26.
“I had the chance to return back north with the Blackhawks but then Dragons spoke to me and said they’d like me to stick around for another year,” Nona said.
“I was happy to do that and I’m really thankful for the opportunity. At my age, I’m 26 now, I thought I probably wouldn’t get another opportunity. A lot of the young guys come up now are pretty talented and that’s the way most clubs like to go It’s very rare for fellas over 25 to get a chance in first grade.
“I had a lot of time playing against Cody in the Queensland Cup and he’s definitely opened up that pathway for fellas like us to make it into first grade so hopefully I can replicate what he’s done.”
It won’t be Nona’s first chance at cracking the NRL having spent time in the Melbourne Storm system following the Pride’s 2014 premiership success. It proved a steep learning curve and, having never played outside the semi-professional ranks, he admits he wasn’t ready physically or mentally ready for the rigours of the NRL.
“My first season in Melbourne was the first time I’d been involved in a full-time first grade system,” Nona said.
“It was a shock to the body and I just wasn’t prepared for what they had in store for me. I’ve definitely learned from that and I’m definitely preparing myself better the second time around.”
Nona’s promotion to the NRL squad also means he’ll be vying with Cutters halves partner Drew Hutchison for the No.7 jumper alongside skipper Gareth Widdop, something he expects to bring out the best in both of them.
“Nothing much will change we’re just going to push each other to be at our best which is what we did with the Cutters,” he said.
“Whoever gets the first opportunity we’ll congratulate each other. I just need to make sure I’m pushing those boys and, whether it’s through injury or their form’s not that great, I’ve just got to be ready for when that opportunity comes.”