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Of all the mind-numbing Zoom calls which littered the NRL world during the early pandemic days, one sticks out most: a hastily arranged Sunday conference when the boss of a struggling club made his star teenager squirm, only hours after he had rolled out of the Gold Coast nightclubs.
Reece Walsh barely had time to go home after one crazy off-season night when Warriors chief executive Cameron George gave him an ultimatum: front up and then we’ll all move on.
Walsh had been busted by police in possession of cocaine. Fidgeting in his seat alongside George and his agent Nash Dawson, Walsh spoke about the mistake he’d made barely 12 hours earlier. The story was gone within a day.
Before the next time they properly sat down as a trio, George headed to a meeting at a Brisbane cafe dreading what was about to happen, maybe as much as Walsh’s confession in late 2021.
“I had a feeling I knew what was coming,” George says.
What was coming would be a once-in-a-generation talent telling George he didn’t want to play for the Warriors any longer, asking to be released from his contract so he could stay in Brisbane with his daughter Leila. The nomadic Warriors, based in Queensland along with the rest of the NRL competition, were only months away from returning to New Zealand permanently.
Do you try to persuade him to stay? Really dig your heels in? Or just move on?
George just sat there and listened.
“I understood Reece’s reasons, and we wanted him to be a dad,” George says. “Being separated from his daughter would have been heart-wrenching for him. He’s a good kid. But we had to do it on the proviso we had a replacement. He understood that and they knew he just couldn’t walk out.
“So I said to him, ‘where do you want to go?’ I was half expecting him to say the Dolphins. But he said, ‘I want to go to the Broncos. I want to go back home to them’.
Warriors boss Cameron George.Credit: Getty Images
“His heart was set on the Broncos, so that’s why it happened.”
Within a couple of days, the Warriors had identified former Canberra star Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad as wishing to return to New Zealand to be closer to his own kids. It was a perfect fit.
Walsh and Dawson quickly – and quietly – negotiated a deal with Walsh’s junior club and the greatest signing no one saw coming was done.
“We could have made him come back to New Zealand, but he couldn’t have been a father to his daughter,” George says. “We’re a family club and we understand it.
“Charnze wanted to be home with his kids, too. They’re humans. You’ve only got to look at both of them, and they’re responding on the field because they’re happy.”
On Saturday night, Walsh will hope to end the NRL’s feelgood story of the year as the Broncos’ No.1 gun when Brisbane host the Warriors in a grand final qualifier at Suncorp Stadium.
There’s not even an argument when it comes to the buy of the season such has been Walsh’s imperious form this year, and it’s only triggered smiles from those who handed him an NRL debut when he was 18, forcing Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to the wing.
“He had his chance and took it with us,” George says. “We looked after him and he’s gone onto great things. He’s a terrific kid and a terrific player and you’ve only got to watch him this year to see how well he’s going when he’s really happy and at home.
“And we get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
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