How Proserpine junior caught this NRL legend’s eye
KAI O'Donnell did it the long way; the 'I don't want it easy' way.
His never-say-die, north Queensland attitude is what caught the eye of legendary Raiders recruitment boss Peter Mullholland and why, come Saturday night, the 21 year old will make his NRL debut.
O'Donnell was built to be a Canberra Raider.
From Proserpine State High School and the Brahmans, O'Donnell spent two years on the Gold Coast Titans' roster, managing just a single pre-season game against the Cowboys while impressing for Burleigh in the Intrust Super Cup.
And though O'Donnell's feats that pre-season were not enough for a Titans call-up, they did pique the interest of Mullholland and the Raiders.
"We were in a situation last year where we needed an edge backrower, so I pulled out my little black book and Kai's name came up," Mullholland said.
"I'd watched him play in Queensland. He had a pre-season with the Titans and I knew he was a good, quality kid."
Before Mullholland's storied journey through the NRL, he was a schoolteacher. He knows what "good kids" look like. It's why he takes the club's welfare manager with him on recruitment trips and why, after much due diligence, he knew O'Donnell was cut from the right cloth. The Raiders' cloth.
"He immediately enhanced our 20s program," Mullholland said of O'Donnell's 2019 Jersey Flegg season.
"He's a good leader within the group and that was proved to be correct the whole way through.
"I was confident he would deliver for us, at least in the 20s, and then the opportunity for him to stay on through a development contract came and he hasn't looked back."
O'Donnell was one of the premier players in the 20s system last season, "in the competition, not just at the club", Mullholland said.
"He attracted interest from other clubs. We had to fight off a Wests Tigers bid to keep him."
The Raiders have a history of finding quality in Queensland - Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher, Peter Jackson, Kevin and Steve Walters; Mackay's Steve Jackson and Neville Costigan.
It's no coincidence, Mullholland says, that some of the game's biggest names come from rural and regional centres.
"It's the isolation. The characteristics of them as country kids. In the NRL they become a point of difference with their attitude and the way they're brought up," Mullholland said.
"They always have to try and prove themselves; they never get an easy pathway. That's where they get that fighting spirit.
"We'll always look for that and our club historically has had great success with Queenslanders. It's nothing for them to just fit into our culture and lifestyle."
And while O'Donnell is a long, long way off joining that list of Raiders elite, his "country kid" characteristics have him firmly entrenched in the club's good graces.
"He's a go-getter. He was so determined to make it (and) he did everything right. He and his partner, they didn't want any help from the club. They moved down off their own bat - it was tremendous. I like that sort of character," Mullholland said.
The Raiders welcome the Melbourne Storm to GIO Stadium on Saturday aiming to make it four on the trot against Craig Bellamy's men.
O'Donnell has been named on the bench, but "could even start", says Mullholland.
"He'll have some nerves sitting on that bench. But he's a level-headed kid. He'll take it all in his stride."