When he first rocked up to Parrish Park three years ago, Levi Pascoe didn't have the look of one of the best back-rowers in Country footy.
In fact, he didn't look like a back-rower at all. The hard-nosed Kiwi headed across the ditch in 2020 to link with the Dragons, right before COVID put all junior rep footy on hold.
He found himself at Wests and, with a couple of seasons in the bank, has emerged as arguably the most damaging running big man in the Illawarra League. It's been enough to earn him a Country jumper for this weekend's City-Country clash.
It's come under the watchful eye of Wests coach Pete McLeod, though the long-time Devils mentor isn't taking any credit.
"It's all down to the hard work he's done," McLeod said.
"He initially he came over with the Dragons and he came to Wests on the back of COVID when there was no football with the Dragons. To be honest, and he won't mind me saying, he'd been in a pretty good paddock through COVID.
"There was definitely something there but, he just needed to work really hard on his fitness. He just got better as the year went on and in 2021 Rylesy (former Devils coach Jason Ryles) came and helped me for a few weeks.
"He was in the background and he was really impressed with Levi, and then he's just come on in leaps and bounds. His catch-pass is really good, he loves the footy, he watches all the video, as he's got fitter his leg speed's really come on.
"It's all through his hard work over the last two years."
Pascoe will take the field alongside Devils teammates Jalal Bazzaz and Luke Chalker, while Collegians powerhouse Josh Dowel is also part of the line-up.
The re-introduction of players from the premier Newcastle and Illawarra competitions promises to make Saturday's City-Country clash as talent-stacked as any time in the past decade. McLeod feels it could well put the likes of Pascoe and Lebanese International Bazzaz on the radar for higher honours.
"I think Levi could definitely play a higher level," McLeod said.
"He's focused on his plumbing apprenticeship at the moment, but I think he's definitely someone who could be the late bloomer and play a lot higher level in the next couple of years.
"Jalal too. He did his knee in about round six last year and couldn't get back on the field for the back end of the year. Anybody who [then] watched the World Cup could see he's definitely got some footy in him. He played against Australia, he played against New Zealand.
"He's been here for a long time, since he was a kid, so it's good to have him back playing for us, but I'm hoping that in the next couple of years he'll be playing higher than where he is at the moment."
Steelers flyer Teagan Berry proved the star, grabbing two tries as the self-described 'bumpkins' overcame a 12-0 deficit to claim the shield.
Jack Talbott will be in action in the under 16s clash on Saturday morning, with Viliami Amone, Clay Baldock, Eden Hodges, Isaac Laughton, Toby Rumble and Jarrah Treweek all part of the under 18s side coached by Peter Hooper.
Indie Bostock (Illawarra Steelers), Koffi Brookfield, Kasey Reh and Caley Tallon-Henniker will turn out in the women's under 17s clash, while Hope Millard, Mia-Rose Walsh and Sienna Yeo are part of Steelers coach Courtney Crawford's under 19s squad.
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