The new 18th man rule could give youngsters their first taste of NRL footy, but Brandon Wakeham warns the rule could come at a cost.
Brandon Wakeham isn’t entirely sold on the 18th man concept, but he’s more than happy to enter the history books after playing his part in a wild night at Kogarah that saw Trent Barrett moved to tears by the Bulldogs’ first win of the year.
It’s been a wretched couple of years in Belmore, but the pain was worth it as Canterbury claimed a thrilling 18-12 win over Cronulla which Barrett called the greatest victory of his career.
For Wakeham, Saturday’s clash will be remembered for other reasons after he became the first player to come on as an 18th man following a controversial hit by Siosifa Talakai that floored Matt Doorey and saw the aggressive Shark sent to the sin bin.
Doorey was officially ruled out of the game at halftime, allowing the Bulldogs to activate Wakeham under the NRL’s new foul play rules which were brought in earlier in the year after the Sharks were forced to play Parramatta with an empty bench for the final 40 minutes of their game.
Unaware of the intricacies of the new rules, Wakeham sat petrified on the bench fearing his career would end that night if he had to play on the edge against a fired-up Talakai.
Instead, he sat on the pine in his Bulldogs jacket until four minutes and 41 seconds to go when Brad Deitz was forced off in heavy contact.
“I didn’t even know the rules,” Wakeham told the NCA Newswire.
“The staff on the bench told me that if Matt Doorey doesn’t pass his HIA, then I had to be ready to go.
“I thought the rule was that I had to go on for him in the back row so I was getting scared because I’d just seen what had happened to him. If that was me on the receiving end then I would probably have to retire.
“It was a fun situation that I was in and I can have a laugh now that I was the first 18th man to come on the field.”
Plenty of people scoffed when the rule was brought in, and even Wakeham thought he was no chance of playing after earning an eleventh-hour call-up to replace Dallin Watene-Zelezniak who was hospitalised with an infected knee.
“I told my dad to not come to the game because the chances of me playing were probably none. He didn’t end up coming which was a shame,” he said.
“I wasn’t even in the 21 at the start of the week. I found out on Friday after training that I was a chance. It was still touch and go because the club wanted to give Dallin as long as possible to see if he could play, but he got ruled out and I got picked instead. It was a weird situation.
“I went on, and I think they scored the very next play. I was thinking to myself ‘bloody hell, I should have just stayed off. I’m bad luck for the team’. It was nerve-racking, but we got them in the end.”
While the new rule provides fringe players with an opportunity to get some NRL experience, Wakeham fears it can have a detrimental effect if the 18th man doesn’t get on and misses a potential 80 minutes in reserve grade.
The 22-year-old has had a solid start to the year with Mounties but was a late scratching for their 30-14 loss to the Newtown Jets.
Instead, he made one tackle, belted out the team song and became a pub trivia answer, but he’s not sure if that’s what he wants going forward.
“I like to play, so it’s hard to sit on the bench wasting a week doing nothing,” he said.
“It’s good to be 18th man because you know you’re on the fringe of playing first grade, but at the same time, you want to get your fitness up playing footy with the NSW Cup boys.
“If I’m 18th man, then I wouldn’t be able to play NSW Cup and I’d end up just training without actually getting on the field. I thought it was probably better to get some game time under my belt in NSW Cup, but today showed that it can work out.”