The life of a young back-rower trying to earn an NRL spot at the Warriors isn’t an easy one right now.
When fully fit, veterans Ryan Hoffman and Bodene Thompson are locked-in starters who have the ability to play 80 minutes, something they both did in almost every game last year.
That is why 20-year-old Bunty Afoa had no hesitation when new head coach Stephen Kearney suggested he spend the off-season developing a skillset suited to the middle of the field at NRL level, giving him a significantly better chance of seeing regular first-grade action in 2017.
Afoa played four NRL matches last year, including two starts as a second-rower on the right side of the field, while he played 80 minutes there in the opening two games of the season as well.
“I want to fight for a starting position, whether it’s on the edge or in the middle,” Afoa said.
“That is what I want to do, be able to go in the middle and help out the boys, wherever ‘Mooks’ (Kearney) wants me to play.
“I am happy with both roles, I get to play alongside Shaun (Johnson) and ‘Fus’ (David Fusitu’a) on the right side or in the middle where all the hard grinding work is, and I enjoy that kind of work and the contact in the middle.”
Veteran Warriors prop Jacob Lillyman said it was hard not to be impressed by Afoa’s rapid rise from an Under-20s player to being a competent first-grader, and backed him to be successful as both an edge and middle forward in the future.
“Bunty has just come out of the 20s and to play 80 minutes [to start the year], and it’s not just the minutes but the quality of his time out there, it’s a credit to him,” Lillyman said.
“Definitely physically he can play both roles, and he carries the ball really strong.
“He runs with vigour and runs really good lines and defensively he is very sound.
“He works really hard defensively and does all those little efforts, so yeah he is going real well.”
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Meanwhile Afoa said he was relishing the opportunity to take the field alongside players he grew up idolising, and in particular having the chance to combine with Johnson down the right edge.
“Sometimes it doesn’t really hit me that I am playing next to Shaun because my mindset is all on the game,” he said.
“It’s only after the game that I think I am playing next to him and guys like Simon Mannering, ‘Hoffy’ (Hoffman) and big ‘Bull’ (Lillyman), they have played Origin and rep footy.
“When it’s on the field it just feels normal.”