Dolphins centre Valynce Te Whare cemented his cult status with an NRL debut to remember, scoring two tries as his side dismantled the Sharks in their Magic Round match.
Dubbed Val Meninga by Dolphins fans, Te Whare – who said he was hoping to meet his namesake Mal Meninga one day – secured huge cheers around Suncorp Stadium whenever he crashed over the line in win that also celebrated his coach Wayne Bennett’s 900th game.
“I’m still speechless,” Te Whare said after the game.
“I didn’t think I was going to play how I played tonight. But I just went out there and had some fun.
“It was pretty fast actually, I wasn't expecting that, how fast it was, my legs couldn’t keep up, to be honest.”
It has been a rapid rise for the former rugby union convert, who played his first game of rugby league last year with the Brighton Roosters before going on to star with Redcliffe Dolphins in the Hostplus Cup.
Sharks v Dolphins - Round 10, 2023
Also working as a groundskeeper at Kayo Stadium last year, Te Whare said he was thankful for his Cup experience for helping him get the basics of the game, although he admits he is still learning the rules.
“All the Cup coaches helped me really well. Here I am – they got me to where I am," the 22-year-old said.
“(But) I'm still to this day, still trying to figure out what the rules are and what to do?
"Two years ago I was hopefully going to play All Blacks and some rugby, but I made the switch last year and then I just thought, just keeping getting good, just keep going in (Hostplust) Cup and then my time will come and today was the day.
“I just go out there have fun. Keep it simple for myself. Just run hard, tackle hard and just laugh and have fun.”
Bennett was typically reserved in his praise but would have been pleased to see his development pay off on the big stage.
"He could be better, he has a lot of improvement in him, but it wasn't a bad start for someone in his first NRL game," Bennett told media post-match, keeping a lid on the hype surrounding the debutant and his own 900th game glory.
One of the reasons Te Whare has captured the imagination is due his remarkable speed for a big man, with his battle against Sharks centre Siosifa Talakai proving a feast for the fans.
“I used to do athletics as a young kid, I did it from (the age of) five to when I was 13-14,” Te Whare said.
“Then I just gave it up, focused on footy … I was a sprinter.
“My last 100 metres was probably when I was at school, I ran it in 11 flat … I was pretty heavy there about 115(kg)."
With a large contingent of family on hand to witness his special moment, including his parents who flew over from New Zealand, Te Whare, whose whanau hails from Ngāti Porou, took part in a haka after the game.
“(The Haka was just) showing like how proud they are with me, just showing pride,” Te Whare said.
“That was my family from NZ, most of them live here by Mum, Dad and Granddad flew over from NZ.
“They're just proud of me showing the pathway for my brother and sister.”