YOU’VE heard the story a dozen times, about how Shaun Kenny-Dowall was a backpacker when he showed up to Sydney Roosters training in 2006.
It was believable. If a New Zealand backpacker was going to turn up anywhere in Sydney, Bondi was as likely a destination as any.
By the end of 2007, he was playing for the All Golds in the Centenary International against the Northern Union. There’ve been nine full Test caps since, plus NZ Maori and NRL All Stars appearances. This year, everything was supposed to really fall in place for the 25-year-old.
The Roosters are on top of the table, ‘SKD’ has two more years to run on his contract and the bad days for the tricolours are well in the past. Instead, halfway through the season, the lanky winger or centre found himself on the outer among supporters and linked to a mid-season transfer.
Just when he should have been enjoying the fruits of seven years’ labour, Kenny Dowall was suddenly under pressure. Standing in the tunnel at Allianz Stadium, he tells A-List why.
“I’ve still had a pretty rough period this year at the club,” he nods.
“I had a couple of injuries … rib cartilage … and I was down on confidence a bit. The support of everyone at the club, that got me back on track and I’m pretty happy with where I am at the moment. I’m still looking to improve.”
There’s an old saying: if you play injured, you have to prepare to be judged the same as those who are 100 per cent fit. No excuses.
“It’s never and easy thing to do but if you have the right mentality, you can do anything,” Shaun, quietly spoken and friendly, says.
“I didn’t want to not be a part of it. That was much worse than being injured. I got needled up for a few weeks. It was about four or five weeks. That’s always tough but, like I said, it was something special and I didn’t want to not be part of it.”
SKD must have bitten so hard on his lip in the face of swirling sleights about his ability during this time, the pain would have been comparable with that of his throbbing ribs. Being criticised and resisting the temptation and speak up about those injuries?
“It’s quite character building,” he responds. “You learn to deal with it and you learn to get over it. That’s part of our game. We’re in the spotlight and I found I was strong enough to put it aside and concentrate on my job, which is footy.”
He doesn’t completely dismiss the idea that a mid-season transfer was something that had been suggested. But he insists it was never really going to happen.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “Nothing really came of it. I tried to put that all aside and concentrate on what I could control and that was preparing to play the best footy I can. I love the Roosters and that’s how it is.
“I’ve only been at one club, the Roosters are all I know and I love it here. There’ve been times where it’s been close. Every year when you’re off contact, you’ve got to leave your options open. But I’ve got two more years here as it stands at the moment.”
Recent weeks have been kinder to Shaun Kenny-Dowall. His stats have improved, he’s flitted between centre and wing depending on injuries and suspension elsewhere, and no-one’s talking about him leaving anymore.
As he said, there’s something special happening at the Roosters this year – something he wants to be part of.
“It’s job-half-done but we’re pretty ecstatic to be in the position we’re in,” he smiles. “We get to play finals football again. It’s been a couple of years at the Roosters and we’re all proud of our efforts and we’re all excited.
“It’s the coach, the players’ mentality… I think everyone has bought in on the same direction and everyone’s doing good things off the field. It makes it better when everyone around you is on the same page, all have the same goals.
“It’s taken a while for things to fall into place but we had a clear direction of where we wanted to be headed. We knew what the expectations were but we knew it was going to take some time as well. We’re still not happy with where we are at the moment, we still … it’s hard to put into words, bro….
“We knew we had something special and that got better every week. The wins started to come and we started playing more consistent footy and we got confidence out of that. We’re in the position that we are now.”
Since Shaun Kenny-Dowall rocked up at training in 2006, “it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, right? We’ve had success and we’ve been at the bottom of the ladder and won the wooden spoon. “
The rollercoaster is being pulled back to a peak. A return to the New Zealand side for the Anzac Test will almost certainly be a precursor for a World Cup call-up. It’ll be Kenny-Dowall’s first trip to the UK since the shambolic 2007 Kiwis tour.
“It was definitely was a disaster,” he says with a wry smile, “and a lot of the younger players who experienced that would be greater for having gone through that time. They know what to expect and what’s required this time.
“I was still young back then. I learned a lot from that trip. Everyone just wasn’t playing their role, I guess.”
With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck a fullback next year and Anthony Minichiello moving to the wing, it would appear SKD is going back to the centres given the form of Daniel Tupou.
“I’m just happy to be on the field with this awesome team,” Shaun says.
“That’s next year. I’ve played centre most of this year and that’s my main position. I’m on the wing at the moment but we’ll just have to see where it goes.”
So, for the dozenth time, let’s tell The Backpacker Story, about how this tourist walked in off the street and became a footy superstar.
A quiet chuckle.
“I definitely wasn’t a tourist,” he responds. “I didn’t have anywhere to stay so I lived in the backpackers for four months until I found my feet.”
Having lived in Brisbane as a kid, Kenny-Dowall could probably mount an argument for Origin selection. He wouldn’t be the first.
“Both my parents are from New Zealand and I was probably conceived in New Zealand,” he says, looking like no-one has ever suggested this before.
“I moved back to New Zealand when I was one year old. I’m a proud Kiwi.”
One year old? What were your parents doing crossing the Tasman so late before you were born and so soon afterwards?
There’s a roll of the eyes, another smile.
“It was actually my mum, trying to get away from my dad. He followed her over here and they both moved back to New Zealand.
“So that was that.”
Between the pages of the oldest stories, there’s always something new if you look hard enough.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK