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In the first of a series on the breakout stars of the NRL in 2020 leading into the finals, Alicia Newton reveals how Tom Starling was close to giving up on his dream before a fateful phone call from the Raiders.

Tom Starling walked off the ground after making his NRL debut for the Knights in 2018 convinced he wouldn't be a one-hit-wonder at the club.

With a small, pocket-rocket frame that came with a big heart, Starling rose through Newcastle's ranks as a teenager alongside Hudson Young under the belief he wasn't set to follow his future Raiders teammate out the door.

Starling was a promising dummy-half who took out Newcastle's prestigious Carlson Club-Andrew Johns medal in 2015 as the club's best junior.

He was rubbing shoulders alongside NRL stars Ryan Papenhuyzen, Payne Haas, Cameron Murray and Nick Cotric in the under-18s Origin arena, coached by Brad Fittler.

He had the likes of Nathan Brown and Danny Buderus to lean on during his time and was battling it out for the hooker spot alongside Danny Levi and Slade Griffin at the club.

Tom Starling in action for the Knights in 2018.
Tom Starling in action for the Knights in 2018. ©Shane Myers/NRL Photos

So, what went wrong after that?

"I got that one NRL game in at the end of the 2018 season but after that to be honest, I didn't hear back from them," Starling says.

"I debuted and was flying at the time, I thought 'How good is this?' I went back to the 20s and we got knocked out in the preliminary finals.

"I waited a while after the season finished, kept training with a few of the boys but I never heard anything back.

"Then it was getting to November so my manager and I assumed that was it. In the end, I didn't hear a reason why they didn't re-sign me but I never dwelled on it or sat there and sulked."

Tom Starling playing for Canberra's feeder side Mounties in March.
Tom Starling playing for Canberra's feeder side Mounties in March. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

Some of the external talk following Starling's departure from the Knights centered around his size.

The 170-centimetre rake wouldn't stand over too many, if any, players in the game but was never officially told his frame had anything to do with his exit.

"Maybe they didn't think I could do it week-in-week-out but I've never known anything different," Starling said.

"I've always been the small fella in the team. I don't know what it's like to be the big kid and do that stuff. I just know I can't take a backward step, if there's a slight bit of hesitation it's not going to be good.

"So I go a hundred mile an hour forward and try to stick to that."

Newcastle's loss is now proving to be Canberra's big gain.

Raiders recruitment guru Peter Mulholland's relationship with Starling dates back to their time in Newcastle together.

Mulholland worked with Wayne Bennett in recruitment across a three-year period while overseeing the club's junior programs when Starling was coming through the grades.

Raiders v Roosters - Round 17

"It never worried us," Mulholland said when asked of Starling's size.

"What they did at Newcastle was had him tackling over the ball.

"I had a good talk with Mick Potter who was coaching him up there in reserve grade and he said Nathan Brown wanted him tackling over the ball and you just can't do it.

"It wasn't going to help Tom because he's too small and will have to get his feet off the ground to get over the ball.

"So that was one thing we spoke to Rick [Stuart] about and he picked it straight away.

Tom Starling drives in hard in defence against the Roosters.
Tom Starling drives in hard in defence against the Roosters. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"He could always tackle head-on and he's got that power from his hips down. He is a bit of a pocket rocket.

"As soon as he got here Rick and Andrew McFadden changed his style. He had to learn to go under the ball and was brilliant at it."

As fate would have it, Young was the one who convinced Mulholland to bring Starling to Canberra when the 22-year-old was at a crossroads and bound for Queensland's Intrust Super Cup to play for the Tweed Seagulls.

Some kind of night for Tom Starling

The Raiders had a spot open as a back-up to Josh Hodgson and Siliva Havili after Kurt Baptiste left the club - no guarantees, just an opportunity to play the third fiddle.

"I actually got approved for an apartment in Tweed with one of my best mates the day Pete rang me to say would I come down and do a train and trial," Starling said.

"I had to tell my mate I was going down to Canberra but he and the club were really happy for me and I saw it as a big chance to make something of it."

A little over 18 months on and Starling now lives with Young and mid-season signing Corey Harawira-Naera in the nation's capital.

He is set to extend his stay beyond this season with the club offering a two-year deal and shapes a vital cog in the side's quest for a premiership this season.

"We want to finalise the deal in the coming days, I actually got an email from Tom's management requesting to proceed," Mulholland said.

"He's only been here on one-year deals which isn't good so a bit of security will do him well.

"You can never replace someone like Hodgo [Josh Hodgson] but you can learn to live with what you've got as well and Tom has done that.

"He is just a really good kid from a great family and the players and coaching staff love him."

 
 
 
 
 
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Starling credited his family for a never-say-die attitude.

His mother Joanne, a sales representative, and father David, a bricklayer, live five hours away in Avoca Beach and recent COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have made it difficult for him to visit them.

"We moved to the Central Coast when I was about 10 and they were still driving back from Sydney every day and getting up at all hours of the morning to provide for us," Starling said.

"I picked that up along the way that if you want to succeed you've got to work hard.

"And having two brothers who were always rumbling against each other in the backyard playing footy as siblings do helped bring out that competitiveness.

"I've been out of home for a fair bit now and it makes it easier having Hudson here and we've got a lot of the England boys who don't have a lot of family so we're always hanging out.

"It's crazy how it's all unfolded but I'm pretty happy it all did."