Fiji playmaker Brandon Wakeham credited his time in camp with the Bati ahead of last week’s Pacific Test for the confidence he showed to deputise for Canterbury five-eighth Kieran Foran in his surprise NRL debut against Cronulla on Sunday at ANZ Stadium.
Wakeham, 20, had been driving with his family to ANZ Stadium for the earlier Canterbury Cup match when Bulldogs coach Dean Pay phoned to tell him that he was replacing Rhyse Martin on the bench and would interchange with hooker Michael Lichaa during the game.
However, he was thrust into the halves alongside Jack Cogger after Foran limped from the field with a hamstring injury in the 25th minute and helped steer Canterbury to a 14-12 upset defeat of the Sharks.
“It has been a pretty good two weeks, I was on a high from representing Fiji and now to get my NRL debut is awesome,” Wakeham said.
“I was calling the shots last week, there are some big boys to boss around but that is my position so it helped me today.
“Being in camp builds your confidence because there is no hierarchy in the Fiji team. Everyone is on the same platform and that sort of brings my confidence up.
Match Highlights: Bulldogs v Sharks
“When I came back to training, even though I was expecting to play Canterbury Cup I just had so much confidence. I wasn’t worrying about whether anyone was judging me or anything, I was just focused on playing my game.”
However, the game he was preparing to play was against Newtown at 1.45pm. About noon, Wakeham received a call from Pay to advise that he had been promoted after Martin was granted an immediate release to join Super League club Leeds on a two-and-a-half year deal.
Pay had believed Martin could play a farewell match for Canterbury but he was ruled out on Sunday morning.
“I was about 15 minutes away and I got the call that I was playing first grade so I was four hours early,” Wakeham said. “My Canterbury Cup coach [Brad Henderson] rang me and he said Dean would give me a call shortly.
“Dean gave me a call five or 10 minutes after that and went through roughly what he wanted from me today. I was just saying yes, yes, thank you. I was so rapt. I was just in shock, I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, jump up or what.”
His father Michael was driving with Wakeham’s younger brother and sister in the car.
“He stopped at the lights and I had my phone on speaker, he was so happy he didn’t realise all the cars had started driving,” Wakeham said.
“He always drives me to training and that so it was good to pay him back by playing for Fiji and playing NRL. It just shows the work my parents have put in for me is starting to pay off.”
Match: Bulldogs v Sharks
Round 15 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Bulldogs officials believe Wakeham will be a regular first grader in the future but are unsure whether it will be in the halves or at hooker.
The Canterbury junior showed enough during his 55-minute stint to suggest he can handle the playmaking role.
“I was pretty upset with my performance in the first half, I was pretty down but the boys just said to back yourself and that gave me confidence,” Wakeham said.
"To hear that, especially from Tols (Aiden Tolman) and Jacko (Josh Jackson), the captain, was massive.
“I was playing on the same side of the field as Shaun Johnson and he is a freak. The way he moves around the field it looks like nothing for him, just like he is playing in the backyard. Every time he touched the ball I was sort of nervous.
“I could hear them saying ‘get at Wakeham, get at Wakeham’, and they started loading their big boys up at me but everyone around me helped me.”