The Dally M Fullback of the Year award and NSW Origin incumbency wasn’t enough to book a seat on the Four Nations plane to England for James Tedesco, who was one of the most stunning omissions from Mal Meninga’s Kangaroos tour squad.
The Wests Tigers superstar lost out to Brisbane’s Darius Boyd, an automatic Test selection in the No.1, and the versatility of Penrith captain Moylan, who filled the Blues’ fullback role in the two games before Tedesco’s dead-rubber debut in 2016.
But three months on the 24-year-old remains unaffected by the selection snub, instead focusing on the positives of a long and recuperative off-season.
“To be honest I didn’t watch much of (the Four Nations), I was enjoying my break and I was happy to get away from the game for a bit,” Tedesco told Wests Tigers Media.
“It would have been good to go on the tour and get a bit more experience, and if I was lucky enough to get a game that would’ve been good.
“But there’s still plenty of time to earn that Kangaroos jersey and if I can have another strong year this year I can get in the World Cup squad.
“I wasn’t too down about it.”
Tedesco used the extended break – which was punctuated by an appearance for the Prime Minister’s XIII in Papua New Guinea in September – to take care of minor surgeries on his nose and knee.
“I broke it a few times last year, but before that it was always quite blocked up so it cleared my airways and sinuses a bit,” he explains.
“It’s much easier to train and sleep.”
While he was undoubtedly one of the standout players of 2016 – scoring 14 tries and producing 12 try assists in 17 first-grade games – Tedesco’s season was hampered by injuries, with a shoulder problem ruling him out of contention for the Blues’ side for the series opener and a broken jaw ending his NRL campaign in Round 23.
A high challenge by Gold Coast prop Ryan James, who was controversially exonerated by the judiciary, contributed to a crucial 19-18 loss to the Titans at Campbelltown and severely dented the Tigers’ finals aspirations as they lost two of three remaining matches with their strike weapon sidelined.
— LeagueHQ (@LeagueHQ1) September 15, 2016
“It was pretty frustrating,” Tedesco laments.
“When I first did I thought I’d be out for three months.
“Obviously it was disappointing to not be there for those last few games when we were pushing for a finals spot, but I think the boys all took confidence out of those last few games and they’ll take that into next year.”
Serious injury is nothing new for Tedesco. Few will forget the then 19-year-old’s tragic ACL injury on NRL debut in Round 1 of the 2012 season.
And after representing City Origin and Italy in 2013, his 2014 season consisted of just eight first-grade appearances as knee and ankle problems continued to dog his progress. He enjoyed an injury-free year in 2015 – playing all 24 games for the battling Tigers and scoring 17 tries – but despite the untimely setbacks this year Tedesco is looking on the bright side.
“Everything happens for a reason so I wasn’t too down about it.
“I was happy it wasn’t anything to do with my knee or ankle that I’ve had previous troubles with. These were just contact injuries on the bones which are pretty hard to avoid.
“They’re pretty frustrating, but they’ve both recovered pretty well.”
Tedesco achieved a major career goal in 2016, however, by breaking into the NSW side. After Queensland wrapped up the series inside two games, Tedesco was called up for his initial taste of Origin in game three, with Moylan demoted to the bench (he eventually started at five-eighth).
He lived up to the hype in spectacular fashion, running for a game-high 254 metres and making a long break in the lead-up to Michael Jennings’ last-gasp match-winner in an 18-14 success.
“It was a big dream of mine to play Origin, it’s every kid’s dream I think,” he says.
“It was a dead-rubber and there wasn’t too much pressure on everyone, but just being in the camp with guys like ‘Woodsy’ (Aaron Woods), he’s always cool, calm and collected, so it was pretty relaxing being around him.
“Woodsy pushed me out the front when we were running out for that game. I think I was third from the front and just that feeling of running out – it’s pretty hard to explain, but it’s a feeling I don’t think I’ll be able to top.
“Hopefully I can start strong this year and get another shot at it.”
As it was in 2015 and ’16, the battle to wear the NSW No.1 is set to dominate representative debate in the lead-up to this year’s series.
Moylan’s brilliant form as captain of the Panthers’ finals charge and eventual Kangaroos selection puts him right back in the frame for a return to the Blues custodian role; he has even been mentioned as a potential state captain.
Josh Dugan appears to be considered at centre at rep level these days, but Jarryd Hayne’s return to the NRL with the Titans adds another element to the race to fill the key spot for the Blues.
A bona fide Origin great, Hayne has played rep footy extensively at wing and centre, but his performances in NSW’s drought-breaking 2014 series triumph before going on a multi-code odyssey were arguably the most influential ever seen from an Origin fullback.
Tedesco prefers to fall back on the well-worn adage that if his club form is up to scratch, the rest will take care of itself.
“There’s still a lot of talk about it, but I think that’s always going to be the case.
“I still don’t like to put too much pressure on myself. I just want to focus on playing good footy for the Tigers.
“That’s the main goal this year is to boost our way up the ladder, because we ended strongly last year so hopefully we can take that form into this year.
“If I’m playing good footy hopefully I can warrant a spot.”
Another Tedesco-related storyline set to gobble up plenty of speculative column space is his destination for 2018, with the hot property one of several key Tigers – including Woods, Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks – coming off-contract at the end of this season.
The Bulldogs and Roosters have been rumoured as possible suitors for the speedster.
But there is a feeling there is something special brewing at the joint venture, particularly with Tedesco, Woods and Moses all coming off career-best seasons.
Tedesco points to the young side’s improvement over the second half of 2016 for proof they can end a five-season finals drought this year – and he says the squad is fizzing to get what shapes as a breakout campaign started.
“I think we learned to hang tough. That game against the Cowboys was one of our best where we took it to the reigning premiers, and we toughed it out for the whole game.
“We showed that throughout the year but our consistency definitely let us down.
“You can through the pre-season all the boys are working hard and there’s a lot of positive energy around the place, which is great to see. Everyone’s working hard for each other and everyone’s just enjoying their time here.”