Plenty had changed since the last time Fa’amanu Brown took the field in an NRL match.
The Christchurch product, then just 19, was one of the few bright spots to emerge in Cronulla’s tumultuous 2014 campaign, playing 11 games for the embattled wooden spooners.
Shaping as the favourite to wear the No.6 jumper last season, Brown’s sophomore campaign was ruined by a season-ending knee injury at the Auckland Nines. While he sat on the sidelines, Jack Bird carried off Dally M Rookie of the Year honours from the five-eighth role.
The club then signed Roosters linchpin James Maloney for 2016, and the premiership winner has been instrumental in the Sharks’ surge to the top of the premiership ladder, earning a NSW Origin recall along the way.
Cronulla’s outstanding form – including a club-record winning streak – and low attrition rate has meant Brown’s comeback trail has been mapped out exclusively in the InTrust Super Premiership for the Newtown Jets…until Sunday.
After an absence of 686 days, Nu Brown returned to first-grade duty with Maloney in Blues camp ahead of Origin III, and played an instrumental role in the Sharks extended their winning run to 13 matches with a 26-10 defeat of Penrith.
The Hornby junior, who has been a valuable and versatile performer all season for the Jets and is one of the nicest young guys you will meet in the game, showcased his trademark footwork in making a break to set up the opening try for star fullback Ben Barba.
Only minutes earlier, the 21-year-old had pulled off a superb cover tackle on opposite number Bryce Cartwright, taking the boom Panther into touch near the Sharks’ try-line.
Arguably Brown’s biggest claim to fame in his career to date was revealing on social media earlier this year that he blew up his iPhone by attempting to charge it in a microwave – but on the strength of his display against the Panthers, that should gradually change.
Fa’amanu Brown burnt those Penrith defenders like an iPhone in a microwave #NRLPanthersSharks
— Matt Coleman (@_MattColeman) July 10, 2016
Fellow Canterbury junior Matt McIlwrick, journeyman back Mitch Brown, ex-Manly forward Jesse Sene-Lefao and debutant Kurt Capewell also made their first NRL appearances of 2016 in the Sharks’ high-quality win, highlighting the club’s astounding depth with five players away on Origin duty.
The Sharks have enjoyed a charmed run injury-wise – using just 19 players prior to yesterday’s clash – but the performance of the stand-ins, Brown in particular, would have provided coach Shane Flanagan with confidence that the premiership front-runners can cover any contingency later in the season.
Flanagan would also have been pleased with the manner in which his remaining senior players stepped up with Maloney, Paul Gallen, Wade Graham, Jack Bird and Andrew Fifita absent. Two-try hero Barba was brilliant at both ends of the field, halfback Chad Townsend controlled play in cool-headed fashion, and Michael Ennis, Luke Lewis, Chris Heighington and Matt Prior led the way in the pack.
And whether the likes of Nu Brown are required for the high-stakes end-of-season games or not, the performance against the Panthers removed any doubt over whether the Sharks’ second-tier brigade are up to the task of slotting in for the club’s bigger names.
Meanwhile, with quality halves in short supply on the player market, Brown is certain to attract some interest from rival clubs – but his ability to play hooker or backrow will ensure Cronulla fights to retain the tyro until his contract expires at the end of 2017, and beyond.