By STEVE MASCORD
IF Aaron Gray becomes South Sydney’s next home-grown great, The Burrow and all bunnies fans will have a broken toe to thank for it.
With his close friend Kirisome Auva’a suspended for nine months over an incident of domestic abuse, the 20-year-old will be battling the likes of Joel Reddy and Bryson Goodwin for his spot in the centres for the World Club Challenge against St Helens and NRL round one opposite Brisbane.
At first glance, it seems a natural progression a kid who grew up in the local area, under the guidance of dad Brian, a country footballer of note.
Just one problem: Brian is also the Sydney Roosters’ junior program manager.
“I’ve been playing footy since I was about five years old, for Mascot Jets, which is a local club in the South Sydney comp” says the polite youngster, a late call-up for NSW Under 20s in 2014.
“But my dad worked at the Roosters for about 20 years – so I was over there for a couple of years, funnily enough. I went over to the Clovelly Crocodiles, which is a Roosters junior team, for a couple of years.
“I had an injury, I didn’t get picked for the Roosters team so then I switched over to Souths. When I went to Souths, I switched back to Mascot Jets.
“Then I came over to Souths when I was about 16, playing Harold Mat’s then SG Ball and 20s and then I’ve moved into the first grade squad now.”
The injury that changed the course of his football career and may give the cardinal and myrtle more ammunition in their eternal war against the tricolours? “I think I was about 15 and I snapped my toe,” he says. “I had to have a few screws put in my toe.”
Gray played in the 2013 Return To Redfern game against Papua New Guinea Residents but still hasn’t made a top grade NRL appearance.
Yet Souths have already taken him to Arizona for high altitude training and he has his fingers crossed he’ll be making his first trip to England for the WCC – all before his 21st birthday.
But Gray, whose brother Brock also plays for the Bunnies, will take no pleasure in replacing Auva’a.
“It’s pretty unfortunate what’s happened to ‘Some because he’s one of my close mates and I’m feeling for him at the same time,” he said.
“I had a chat to him this morning. He’s going alright. There’s not much he can do at the moment. He’s just taking it day by day and he’s not going too bad.
“I don’t feel expectation. There’s a good opportunity there for someone. If that opportunity comes my way, I’m willing to grab it with both hands.
“My goal is just to get fit and play in all the trials and hopefully get a crack in the World Club Challenge and go from there. I haven’t been to England.
“It does add that little bit of extra spark when you know there’s a position available there. I’m just going to do everything in my power to get there.”
Rugby union often sells itself to young athletes as a better way to see the world than rugby league – but Gray can have no complaints over his experiences so far.
While some say Rabbitohs will be adversely affected by travelling to the United States and England in the off-season, Gray says he’s still buzzing from the high altitude training in Arizona.
“We did the Grand Canyon and Mount Humphreys and the Grand Canyon walk was just amazing,” he enthuses shortly after his return to Sydney.
“I never thought I’d actually enjoy walking eight hours up and down massive mountains but around every corner was a better view than the last one.
“It was really good to see a bit of the world with the boys, get a bit of bonding going with all the lads.”
He says the high altitude training works. “Definitely, it’s a lot harder to breath and get oxygen into your body.
“(We were based) about half an hour’s drive from the Grand Canyon. The hotel we stayed in was just a normal hotel but we had a guy, he specialises in all that kind of stuff.
“He deals all the Olympians, the cyclists … who are over there for the high attitude training. We’d wake up around seven o’clock, go out and do some skills and some conditioning, straight into weights and then to cross training and then recovery after that and maybe a massage.
“We’d finish around 12 o’clock, one o’clock each day. Some days we’d have cross training in the afternoon. We had a day off here and there, nothing too big.
“We went into Flagstaff. There was a shopping mall there, heaps of the boys did some shopping because it’s a bit cheaper over there. A few boys came back with a few extra bags.”
Gray got more of an adventure than he bargained for on the final night of the trek, when an earthquake hit the area.
“I was rooming with John Sutton. I had my earplugs in sleeping and I heard Sutto screaming in the middle of the night, saying “Azza, Azza, what’s going on?” he recalls.
“I woke up and the hotel was shaking. I didn’t pay too much attention, I just went back to sleep.
“Sutto was stressing out. Me and Sutto were up on the sixth floor of a seven-floor hotel so we felt it pretty good.”
Most Souths fans have the first encounter with the Roosters circled in whatever passes for a diary these days, as soon as the draw is announced each year. Gray insists he’s not focused on it.
“We try not to buy into it too much but there is definitely a good rivalry there,” he says, when asked about his dad’s likely allegiances when that date rolls around.
“He’s a Roosters man through-and-through. He’s alright. My little brother’s with the team as well, with the 20s team, he’s got no choice but to support the bunnies as well.
“That’s a good question. If I was playing first grade, he’d probably be cheering me. If not, he’d probably be cheering for the Roosters.”
Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK