In the final feature on a series on the breakout stars of the NRL leading into the finals, Brad Walter tells the tale of Toby Rudolf's roundabout way to the top.
Toby Rudolf’s idea of a good day’s work used to be getting up at 3.30am to deliver supplies to the cafes at Stradbroke Island before going fishing and catching an afternoon ferry back to Brisbane.
On another occasion, during a stint with South Sydney, he was playing so poorly that the Rabbitohs sent him back to park football and he earned the $150 bonus as player-of-the-match almost every week, as well as match payments.
"That ended up being a lucrative deal that sustained me through quite a few bills," the Cronulla prop said.
Playing in the NRL was a dream, even while playing rugby union for The Scots College in Sydney, which led to a development contract with the NSW Waratahs.
A Sydney Roosters fans, he didn’t begin playing league until he joined the South-Eastern Seagulls in the South Sydney competition at the age of 19. Within two years he was playing for the Rabbitohs.
However, he appeared destined for a career driving trucks, mowing lawns or as a door-to-door salesman after being shown the door by Souths and finding his way to Redcliffe in 2018.
It’s why he jumped at an offer from the Warriors after just two NRL matches for the Sharks earlier this year, before backing out on the agreement for family reasons.
Raiders v Sharks - Elimination final
"It was a pretty big deal," Rudolf said. "I have only ever been on minimum wage as an NRL player and when they came across with the offer I was keen to go across the ditch and give it a crack.
"It was a really nice feeling to be wanted by someone, normally I get to the end of the year and have to go somewhere else."
After playing all but one match for Cronulla - when coach John Morris rested him from last weekend’s clash with Canberra - Rudolf has now established himself as a key member of their pack.
However, time and time again the 24-year-old has feared he would never fulfil his NRL ambition.
"When I was 21, I was at Souths for a year and I was the worst player there," Rudolf said.
"I was on the bench in reserve grade all year. I could have given it up then but I would have regretted it because I knew I hadn’t given it my best crack.
I was at Souths for a year and I was the worst player there.Toby Rudolf
"I went to Redcliffe with the mindset of giving it the best I could and if I was still on the bench then I would know it wasn’t for me.
"I was either going to make it or I was going to be driving trucks or working as a carpenter. I could have been driving trucks, that was a definite possibility.
"I had a job doing deliveries for cafes. I was getting up at 4.30am every day and I’d drive everywhere from central Brisbane to Logan, Ipswich and Toowoomba. I could drive anything from little vans to 18-tonne trucks.
What a time to score your first NRL try!
"There are worse jobs out there. I used to dig holes, I used to demolish houses, I used to be a lawn-keeper and I’d been a door-to-door salesman so truck driving wasn’t too bad.
"I used to go to Stradbroke Island every second Monday. I’d get up at 3.30am, go across on the barge and get there at about 6am.
"I would go to eight cafes, which was a real slow day, and have about six hours to myself. I’d fish and beach hop. It was some of my best memories."
Every Try of the Week winner from 2020 season
Rudolf thrived at Redcliffe, helping the Dolphins to Intrust Super Cup grand final glory against Easts Tigers, winning the Duncan Hall Medal as man-of-the-match and a contract with the Sharks.
Yet he ruptured his ACL a week later in the National Championship final and spent most of last season recovering before returning to help Newtown to the same success he had enjoyed with Redcliffe in 2018.
"When I signed for the Sharks I thought I was killing it," Rudolf said. "I thought I was invincible and on track to be a starter. I sort of looked at Woodsy [Aaron Woods] and thought ‘I’m going to take his spot’ and then I ended up doing my knee.
"That was probably the hardest time of my life. Luckily, Mum was around. I moved back home and she took care of me and nursed me back to health. I was sort of just on the lounge being a miserable bastard all the time."
Rudolf had been living with Rabbitohs prop Liam Knight after they met on the night of Redcliffe’s grand final triumph.
Knight, who played juniors with Manly, had been with former Sea Eagles teammates Tom and Jake Trbojevic and Luke Garner, who now plays for Wests Tigers.
"There was one point in the night where ‘Never Give It Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band came on, and I don’t know what came over me and Liam … but that was the first time we met and we have been friends ever since."
After being forced to move out due to the NRL’s strict biosecurity protocols prohibiting players from rival teams living together, the pair plan to reunite after their respective seasons end.
The Sharks are huge underdogs against Canberra on Saturday after finishing eighth and failing to beat another finals team all season but regardless of how far they progress in October it has been a breakout year for Rudolf.
The Warriors offered him a three-year contract but with his brother moving to Bali. he told the club he needed to stay close to his mother Susan, who is legally blind, and grandmother Erika, who was diagnosed with cancer after he had agreed to the deal.
"The day the coronavirus shut the NRL down I was very keen to go to the Warriors but things went belly up with my family and luckily the Warriors understood that so I am still going to be a Shark in 2021," he said.
Match: Raiders v Sharks
Finals Week 1 -
Venue: GIO Stadium, Canberra
"The phone call to [Warriors recruitment manager] Peter O’Sullivan still haunts me to this day. I was sweating bullets because I was so nervous about telling him what was going on in my life.
"They were understanding and I couldn’t be more thankful to them for allowing me to stay and be close to my family.
"I always wanted to crack it in league since I was a young tacker so I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out.
"There are still massive holes in my game that I need to improve on but to play every game bar one in my rookie year I am stoked."