At the start of last season, Matt Moylan just wanted to play. An ankle injury had cruelled his 2015 season, and then the doctors found stress fractures in his back.
By the end of the year, he’d captained Penrith deep into the finals, played three State of Origins for NSW and made his debut for Australia as part of the Kangaroos’ victorious Four Nations campaign.
Despite all of this, the moment that brought the most fame and adulation didn’t come in a footy jumper but a fluro work shirt in a skit for social media phenomenon Jackson O’Doherty.
If you’re not one of O’Doherty’s 242,000 Instagram followers, or one of the 3.8 million people who have liked his Facebook page, you probably don’t know who he is. He’s one of those ordinary blokes who regularly breaks the internet doing, well, dumb stuff. You can make a living out of it these days.
Moylan appears in the video – which can be found on Facebook and Youtube – as Australia’s worst tradie. It’s a tongue-in-cheek campaign for Apprenticeship Careers Australia. So far, the video has had 1.9 million views.
“That was a bit of fun that day,” says Moylan, before bringing out his Thurston-like chainsaw laugh. “A friend of mine approached me and asked me if I would be interested in doing it. They wanted to film a little skit. They said you’d just be stitched up. Bit of fun. He’s very popular. At the time, I was overseas [playing for Australia] so I didn’t cop too much for it.”
Moylan won’t need to be an internet sensation to stir interest this season, which promises to catapult him further into the limelight simply because of his standing in his club, the game and the way he plays his footy.
At the beginning of last season, even he admits he was unsure if Panthers coach Anthony Griffin had made a mistake in asking him to be captain.
As it now stands, here on the eve of the season, he is the leader of a club that is equal premiership favourites alongside Melbourne with most bookmakers. Having signed a new deal that keeps him at the club until the end of 2021, he is indisputably the Panthers’ future.
On top of that, the 25-year-old is also the Blues’ future.
He was dropped from fullback for Origin III last year, having played in the first two matches of the series, but was recalled and thrust into the No.6 jumper when Adam Reynolds was ruled out with a shoulder injury.
NSW won and Moylan returned to Penrith reignited.
He trots out the cliche about playing anywhere in the 17 for coach Laurie Daley this season but push him just a little harder and he says he would relish the chance to play in the halves again.
“I hope so,” Moylan says. “I’m comfortable playing there. It’s not where I play week to week but I’m comfortable there. The way we play at Penrith, I get to ball-play a bit and that suits the way I play as well.”
There were certainly fears from some that Moylan was on a hiding to nothing in that dead rubber against Queensland.
History – and NSW selectors and coaches and the public and the media – haven’t been kind to those halves that are thrown in the deep end and then failed. Ask Jarrod Mullen. Ask Mitchell Pearce.
“But I was happy,” he says, followed again by the chainsaw laugh. “I loved it. It was a new challenge for me. I wanted to play Origin, I was disappointed not to get picked and then to get called up at five-eighth was something I relished. If anything, it helped me for the rest of the year. The change was good for me at the time, to play a different role with more freedom. It’s weird to say but there was no pressure on me, because I was playing a new position that I hadn’t played in first grade.”
Confidence is what we’re all expecting from the Panthers this season.
Footy is a drag for many players, so constrained and programmed by the structures put in place by their coaching staff. It’s tough for them to play, tough for us to watch.
Watching the Panthers, with an average age across their squad of about 23 and a mandate from Griffin to play some expansive footy, has been a revelation.
In many respects, the club has been slowly building towards this moment. Phil Gould has changed and rearranged the squad, brought in coaches and then got rid of them and ushered in others and built a training facility of NFL standard.
“I debuted in 2013 but been in the system since 2009,” Moylan says. “I’ve seen a lot of change, from personnel in terms of players and coaches and a new facility. We’ve got everything we need to be successful. We’ve got a young squad that can keep improving. It’s exciting. With a young squad, to have that finals experience going into this year, is going to be valuable for us. Our young guys take a lot out of that.
“We’re fortunate with the way Hook [Griffin] allows us to play. We’ve got Bryce Cartwright who’s a big boy that can do things that halves can’t do. Some of the things he does in training, you shake your head at. Tyrone Peachey. They’re just footy players.”
As for the expectation already building around the Panthers, Moylan plays the question much like the way the Panthers play their footy – without a care in the world.
“Nobody has spoken about it,” he says. “We’ve got such a level-headed and young squad that everyone is just focused on working hard and there’s a lot of competition for spots there as well. Working towards a common goal of playing good footy … We want to start the season well, we don’t want to chase our tails.”
Indeed, the apprenticeship is over. Time to build the house.