Written by Oliver Kellner-Dunk
Photo by Raiders Media
Ricky Stuart and his coaching staff at the Raiders used the 2020 NRL season as a year to blood the next generation, as players such as Harley Smith-Shields, Semi Valemai and Kai O’Donnell made their debuts for the Green Machine.
O’Donnell, in particular, was taken aback when he found out that he’d be donning the lime green for the first time against Canberra’s arch-rivals the Melbourne Storm earlier in the year.
“I was doing gym and we got a text from our team manager who said that we are having a team meeting in 10 minutes which was a bit out of the ordinary, then I saw the media crew setting up cameras and I had a few people tapping me on the shoulder saying get ready, and my heart dropped,” O’Donnell told Everything Rugby League.
“Once Ricky sat us down and announced it I was pretty emotional but I was buzzing. We had to train straight away after the announcement. Once training finished I called my mum and my partner and they were both balling their eyes out, I then called my dad who was getting pretty emotional as well.”
The 21-year-old was filled with anticipation in the lead-up to the game, but was able to remain calm and not let the occasion get the better of him.
“Because of COVID my family couldn’t come down from north Queensland to watch which was a bit disappointing but I had a few mates from the Gold Coast hire a campervan and drove down to watch.”
“The Raiders were good at taking the pressure off me. They took care of everything, Ricky kept my roll very simple, and the coaching staff gave me a lot of confidence coming into the game. The day of the game was the longest, it was my first time playing a night game so my game prep was a bit out of whack. After the game, I couldn’t take the smile off my face. Was the happiest moment of my life.”
Canberra would, unfortunately, lose to the Melbourne Storm in a gutsy effort on this occasion; however, the Raiders would win in the three other games O’Donnell played in.
Along with the likes of Penrith, Melbourne and South Sydney, the Raiders are one of the favourites to win the premiership in 2021, and O’Donnell believes that he can help them get there and earn a regular first-grade role in the process.
“I’m hoping to have a more prominent role in the first-grade side, I’m putting my best foot forward.
“Winning a premiership is what it’s all about. We all know the reason we go through what we do is to give ourselves the best opportunity to win a comp.”
John Bateman’s recent departure to the Wigan Warriors will see O’Donnell move higher up the pecking order in 2021, meaning there is a good chance he will be a fully-fledged NRL player by season’s end.