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This week in history: Baby Shark Ritson earns call up

The start of the 1993 NSWRL season could not have been any worse for the Sharks.

By the end of round five, without a single win, they were anchored to the bottom of the ladder with a points differential of -101, highlighting the extent of their struggles both in attack and defence.

Sir Matt Busby, a former Manchester United Football Club manager, famously said in 1952: "If you're good enough, you're old enough." Over 40 years later - on this day (June 26) in 1993 - with the Sharks' finals hopes all but gone, first-grade coach Arthur Beetson chose to share Sir Busby's sentiment when he selected 16-year-old Adam Ritson as a fresh reserve for a Round 13 clash with the Eastern Suburbs Roosters.

Ritson, a Miranda Magpies junior, was a star on the rise, one of those rare talents that was quite clearly going places. In May he was selected in the NSW under 17s side that featured fellow Shark Adam Dykes. Such was Ritson's form that Beetson had used the hulking prop a number of times off the bench but this was to be the first time he was named as fresh reserve in the number 40 jersey.

Captain Dan Stains said of Ritson's selection: "A player like Adam comes along once every 20 years. Arthur Beetson was the last one."

Speaking at the official opening of the Sharks' new gym only a few weeks earlier, the 186cm, 109kg schoolboy said: "I never dreamed I'd be picked in first grade in my first year. Last year I played 20 minutes of an under-21s game and I thought that's where I'd play most of my football this year."

Such was Ritson's raw size and power that Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno, a special guest at the gym opening, challenged the teenager to an arm wrestle. While we don't know who won, it is rumoured that club officials were forced to validate Ritson's age to the Hollywood star, who was visibly impressed by the youngster's strength.

Lou Ferrigno addressing the Sharks in 1993.
Lou Ferrigno addressing the Sharks in 1993.

At 16 years and 303 days old, Ritson became the youngest first-grade debutant in 57 years. The match played before 8,955 fans at Caltex Field saw the Eastern Suburbs Roosters run out 20-8 winners. The Roosters, playing to keep their finals hopes alive, out-enthused the Sharks having led 10-8 at the break before going on with it in the second half.

Cronulla's sole try came in the 16th minute when prop Michael Porter put his partner Danny Lee through a gap. Lee found centre Troy Stone in support and he linked with five-eighth Darren Higgins, who ran 20m for the try. It was a tough introduction to the top grade for Ritson, lining up against experienced campaigners like Kiwi test star Jason Lowrie and premiership winner Nigel Gaffey, but the teenage prodigy more than held his own.

After only a handful of appearances in the top grade that season, Ritson returned to the Presidents Cup side and played a starring role in their march towards the finals. En route, he earned selection in the Australian Schoolboys team that played a touring Great Britain Lions side.

Ritson's remarkable season concluded with a narrow loss to Eastern Suburbs in the Presidents Cup grand final, but it was abundantly clear that the giant forward had plenty of football ahead.

Ritson was used sparingly in the top grade by coach John Lang over the next few seasons as he readied him for the rigours of weekly top-flight football. The highlight of Ritson's short time at Cronulla was quite clearly being a member of the Sharks' 1994 Presidents Cup-winning side.

Unfortunately, Ritson chose to leave the Sharks after the 1995 season as a result of their defection to the newly formed Super League, taking up an offer from the ARL-loyal Parramatta Eels.

Ritson in 1995.
Ritson in 1995.

After playing just eleven games for his new club, tragedy struck in a match against the Canberra Raiders. Just two minutes into the game, Ritson was knocked unconscious after a dangerous high tackle, a routine scan revealing he had a life-threatening brain cyst. Ritson then went on to have fourteen operations over the next year, several of which nearly left him dead. Eventually he made a full recovery but never returned to playing rugby league.

In his book 'Big Artie', Beetson wrote: "Adam Ritson was as good a young player as you'd ever see and what happened to him is one of the game's great tragedies. I drafted him into the first-grade squad in 1993, and there was criticism then that he was too young, that his progress was being rushed. I didn't see it that way. We kept him on the interchange bench. With the talent he had, Adam was certainly good enough. In 1993, this big, beefy young bloke was just to good to be playing seconds."

At 16 years and 303 days, Ritson sits fifth on the all-time list of youngest ever first grade rugby league debutants. The history books reflect Ritson is however the Sharks' youngest debutant, a feat that's most likely never to be bettered.


Born: 6 August 1976

Position: Front row

Years at club: 1992-95

Player no: 282

Games for club: 29 in first grade

Debut: Round 10, Saturday 5 June 1993 against Illawarra at the Wollongong Showground

Last game for Sharks: Elimination semi-final, Saturday 9 September 1995 against Newcastle at the Sydney Football Stadium

Statistics for Cronulla: Four points in first grade, 16 points in reserve grade and  20 points in Presidents Cup

Acknowledgement of Country

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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