IT’S a fortress in its own right, but Gibson Park Thirroul doesn’t quite compare to Suncorp Stadium.
No doubt a few Butchers old boys would disagree, but Dragons young-gun Zac Lomax showed enough at the former two years ago to suggest he’ll handle the latter on Sunday.
That’s according to his former Steelers SG Ball coach Shane Millard, who was also Thirroul president when Lomax made his Illawarra League first grade debut against Wests in 2016, still 40 days shy of his 17th birthday.
Millard had to pull a few strings to get him on the park but it was certainly worth it, with Lomax laying on two tries and nailing a couple of sideline conversions in the second half to very nearly overhaul a 26-6 deficit.
The Butchers ultimately went down 26-22 but most, including Millard, left the ground knowing Lomax’s in days in park footy were numbered.
“It was his first game of first grade and he said ‘let me kickoff, let me kick goals’, he just wanted to be that person and that player,” Millard said.
“It takes a special kid to do that in his first game against men but gives you an idea of the type of kid he is and his belief in himself.
“That’s what makes him better than most. Most kids would just try and do what they needed to but he wanted to be in that game, he wanted to kick that goal, he wanted the ball at critical times of the game.
“You can’t coach that. It’s in you or it’s not and, at 16 years old, to do that in a first grade game for Thirroul, it stuck out and let you know he’s going to be something special.”
Not that you’d doubt anyone current NSW coach Brad Fittler has dubbed “the gifted one,” but Millard said it’s not the physical gifts that set the Temora product apart.
“He’s got every attribute, size, strength, but he competes as hard as any kid I’ve ever seen,” Millard said.
“He’s got that competitive nature, he’s a kid that on his day off will go and kick a thousand goals. He’s got the ability to go with it, but it’s that attitude to train and compete hard on everything that stood out for me.”
They were qualities that also struck Thirroul coach Jarrod Costello, then in his rookie year, who’ll coach the Butchers against Wests in this Sundays’ Illawarra League grand final.
“We had to get some approvals from the CRL to let him play,” Costello said.
“He played in the centres, he was up against Junior Vaivai who was one of the best centres in the comp.
“We were down a couple of tries and all of a sudden he was kicking for touch, putting mid-field bombs up, we were scoring tries, he was converting them from the sideline. He was outstanding.”
It’s days like that gusty afternoon at Gibbo that leave Millard confident Lomax can bounce back from a mixed afternoon in his 80-minute debut against Newcastle last week.
Called in for the injured Euan Aitken, who tweaked a hamstring against the Bulldogs a week earlier, Lomax spilled a ball over the try-line and put an attempted penalty goal into the upright in the first half.
He bounced back in the second, finding Matt Dufty for his second-half try and nailing some crucial conversions to put a gritty 10-point win to bed down the stretch and retain the No. 3 jumper for Sunday’s elimination final against Brisbane at Suncorp.
Aitken was named on an extended bench, and could be a late inclusion, but Millard is confident Lomax can stand up to the finals heat if required to make just his third NRL appearance on the finals stage.
“Zac’s the type of kid that’ll thrive on it,” Millard said.
“You’ve got Internationals who’d be nervous and excited all at the same time but he’s the type of kid that will love it and embrace it.
“There were a couple of things that didn’t go his way last week but he’s got a great ability to dump it and move on to his next job.
“He still wanted the footy, he still wanted the sideline conversion, he wanted the ball. He’ll just want the ball in his hands as much as possible.”