When Josh Hodgson ruptured his ACL against the Melbourne Storm, Ricky Stuart was immediately asked whether he was looking to recruit a new hooker.
The head coach didn’t hesitate in his response.
“Tommy Starling is our backup hooker,” Stuart said at the time. “We have a lot of faith in Tommy. He hasn’t played a lot of first grade because of the boys in front of him but Tom will come into the mix now.”
Standing at 170 centimetres and weighing in at only 82 kilograms, Starling had plenty of people doubt his ability to make it as an NRL player.
The doubt started when Starling started playing for the Newcastle Knights in the Harold Matthews Cup as a 16 year old.
“You don’t hear things but I sort of knew that people were worried about my size as I progressed,” Starling said. “It was probably a year by year thing.
“Like at Under 16’s, maybe you can’t step up to Under 18’s. Then you won’t be able to step up to Under 20’s.”
The doubts continued as Starling moved through the age groups but the young hooker continued to prove himself.
As he started to prove his doubters wrong, a junior coach of Starling gave him a piece of solid advise that has stuck with him today.
“I got told by an old coach of mine, ‘Don’t go out to prove people wrong that’s– it’s not in hate but that can only last so long. Go out there and prove people right.’” Starling said. “So that’s what I try and do.
If people show a bit of faith in me, I like to go and show them that they’ve made the right decision.Tom Starling
“I do like proving people wrong - don’t get me wrong - but showing the people that gave me a chance what I can do and proving them right, that’s what I like to do more.”
Having been given good advice as a junior, Starling is now in a position to be helping players who are in the position he was not so long ago.
“I’ve actually had a few young fellas who have reached out to me on Instagram saying that they’re built small like me,” Starling said. “I always looked up to smaller players so I can try and give back to those kids and just tell them to keep working hard, keep trying and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it because you can if you just put your mind to it.
If you are a young fella out there and struggling with being small, shoot me a message and I’m all ear for that. I’ll give you whatever advice I have for you.Tom Starling
After a good season at Under 20’s level, Starling made his NRL debut for the Knights in the final round of the 2018 season.
“It was crazy. There was like 25,000 people there,” Starling said. “I had 50 of my family and friends there in the crowd. It was a dream come true.”
Following that game. Starling finished the season playing Jersey Flegg for the Knights and then there was silence.
“I saw in the media that the Knights signed another nine and my manager said he didn’t hear anything back from them,” Starling said. “I don’t know why they didn’t re-sign me, I’m sure they had their reasons but I didn’t hear anything.
“I didn’t really sulk or anything so I made a decision to look elsewhere.”
Starling and his manager looked to see if any NRL clubs needed a hooker but nothing arose and with teams beginning pre-season training, there was a decision to be made.
“It came down to November 1 and with teams going back to pre-season, spots were being filled in the top squads so I talked to my manager about looking at Queensland Cup sides,” Starling said. “Obviously, it wasn’t ideal, you want to be in a top 30 position.”
Starling packed his bags moved north to link up with the Tweed Seagulls where he began training for a month before two of his close friends helped orchestrate a move south to Canberra.
“Hudson Young and Brendan O’Hagan tipped up Pete Mulholland because they needed a dummy-half down here,” Starling said. “It was around Christmas time and I got the call from Pete asking if I wanted to come down for a train and trial. I said ‘Bloody oath, I’ll take that.’”
With the Raiders NRL Recruitment and High Performance Director Peter Mulholland previously having led recruitment at the Newcastle Knights, he knew what Starling was capable of.
“He knew of me and what I could do and he obviously knew Hudson and Brendan and I guess he trusted their judgement on it,” Starling said. “I’m pretty happy that Hudson and Brendan thought of me in that time. It’s worked out pretty well.”
After impressing during his train and trial deal, Starling was signed permanently and was given his first chance in the NRL for the Raiders after Josh Hodgson injured his thumb against the Cowboys in Round 11 last year.
Having been discarded by Newcastle and struggled to find a new NRL club, Starling describes his Raiders debut as the proudest moment of his life so far.
“At Newcastle I was flying high and it all came crashing down, I didn’t have a deal and I had to go into a part-time situation at Tweed,” Starling said. “It was fair to say it was hurting me a bit.
“Some days I would wake up and think, it might not happen for me and you hear stories all the time about players making a couple of first grade games and that’s the end of them.
“To be able to get given a lifeline on a train and trial deal, I packed my stuff up and came down to Canberra. I wasn’t guaranteed a contract. I gave up my spot on the Tweed team. It could have backfired but I had to back myself and it ended up working out well.
“That was definitely the proudest I’ve been of myself when I got the call up to make my debut for the Raiders. I know it was only a couple of months and then I found my way in, but I could have easily just said that might be it and stayed in Newcastle and played local league.
“Some days I would wake up and think that might be the easiest option but I had good people around me telling me I could push forward if I kept working hard.”
Starling ended up playing three NRL games across 2019 and was ready to take his chance after Josh Hodgson ruptured his ACL in round nine this season.
After hearing Ricky’s public show of faith in him. Starling was determined to prove him right and has certainly not disappointed.
“It’s always good to hear the Head Coach putting faith in the people he has in his system,” Starling said. “He was up front with me and told me that I had first crack at the position.”
Since playing regular first grade, Starling has impressed plenty with his energy from dummy-half and with his tenacity in defence.
“The boys always have a laugh saying that I always dip under people but I don’t really dip under, I’m just there anyway. It’s just a normal tackle,” Starling laughed. “It always good when you get under a big front rower and get him on his back.
“Getting more game time, I feel more comfortable out there but you can’t get complacent. It’s the NRL, you can’t have a bad week.”