Young Penrith playmaker Te Maire Martin says he was close to joining the Cowboys from Wests Tigers before a good old-fashioned sales pitch from Panthers supremo Phil Gould convinced him his future lay at the foot of the mountains.
With two highly–rated young halves ahead of him and well-publicised salary cap issues, the Junior Kiwi was never realistically going to stay at Wests Tigers, while the chance to learn from – then possibly one day take over from – two highly seasoned playmakers at Penrith provided a huge carrot.
While Martin admitted to a few second thoughts while watching could-have-been mentor Johnathan Thurston guide the Cowboys to the 2015 Telstra NRL Premiership, he is very happy with the decision that he made.
"I was really close [to going to Townsville]," Martin told NRL.com.
"I went up there for a look. That was the first place we looked then I came and had a look here and 'Gus' sort of won me over through his words - he's a pretty good talker!"
Martin added Peter Wallace and Jamie Soward are a great pair of senior halves to try and learn from.
"When you see something like that grand final you can dread your decision, but I think I made the right choice, Soward and Wallace have been very open... [Penrith are] very professional about everything they do and they're all pretty friendly here, the coaching staff and all the boys," he added.
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There were plenty of clubs chasing Martin's signature with Melbourne another club he considered but after discussions with friends and family – plus manager Andrew Purcell from MAP Sports – he realised there is more to weigh up than who won a premiership most recently.
"He definitely knows his stuff and he was showing me around and what to look at in clubs. I was just thinking about who'd won premierships, I was thinking Rabbitohs or Roosters but he showed me there's a bit more behind that, he's been good," Martin said.
Another factor was Penrith's strong junior nursery and talented young roster – highlighted by Penrith's win in the 2015 NYC Grand Final. The tyranny of distance was also a daunting factor on the young Kiwi's mind when it came to looking at moving to Townsville, as well as the chance to join forces with some young countrymen.
"We based [the decision] off who am I going to learn off. There was a million teams I wanted to go to but then looking at who I'd learn off and the team buildup – there are a few Kiwis here that sort of helped us. I thought about up in Townsville there wasn't really many Kiwis and it's quite far from anywhere to go to so sticking around here, hopefully it's the right decision and it's been good so far," he said.
"I've met 'Dal' [Dallin Watene-Zelezniak] a few times, he's actually where I'm from in New Zealand in Hamilton, I've been hanging out with him a bit. Elijah Taylor, [Junior Kiwis teammate James] Fisher-Harris, it's good to see a few Kiwi faces around and there's a few jokers around like 'Chicko' [James Segeyaro] and Soward so it's very welcoming."
Martin's signature is a huge coup for the Panthers given their struggles last year when all four of their key playmakers suffered serious injury layoffs. After playing every minute of the opening two games in 2015, Matt Moylan, Soward, Wallace and Segeyaro played just another 11 minutes of the season together (at home in the Round 12 loss against the Eels when Moylan suffered a season-ending ankle injury early on).
"I don't hope they get injured again but if it does happen hopefully I'm ready to step up and have a crack at it," Martin said.
"Time will only tell [if I'm ready for first grade], there's a few big boys around here I think I'd struggle to tackle but full time training's only going to help me and I'll soon see after the pre-season. Hopefully my body will be ready for it."
At 87 kilograms Martin would already be far from the smallest playmaker in the NRL if he were to debut, but he hopes a big pre-season will help him put on a bit more size and get him ready to tackle the big boys of the NRL.
"I was at 87 [kilograms when I arrived] then after the big run [at the first training session] I dropped down to 85!" Martin laughed.
"But they're good here, after the gym you're taking protein and my body's only going to get better from now on. They're organised and professional around here, they're on top of nutrition and diet and all that stuff."
This article first appeared on NRL.com.