Mantellato's Knights debut 

 ‘‘I just loved the experience. Now that I’ve had a taste, I just want to do it again.’’  – JOSH MANTELLATO Picture: Getty Images
‘‘I just loved the experience. Now that I’ve had a taste, I just want to do it again.’’ – JOSH MANTELLATO Picture: Getty Images

NOT even the pain of a suspected broken rib, nor the disappointment of defeat, could dislodge the smile on Josh Mantellato's face.

Mantellato had waited longer than most to make his NRL debut - 26 years and 43 days, to be precise.

Of the 245 men to wear the blue-and-red Newcastle Knights jersey in top-grade competition, only three were older when they played their first games.

But better late than never is the line usually trotted out in such circumstances, and Mantellato was a case in point against South Sydney at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.

Souths won 25-18 but Newcastle's 196-centimetre winger grabbed his chance to create a favourable first impression, scoring a 16th-minute try and kicking three booming goals from as many attempts, all of which were from near the sideline.

"It was very tough and very quick," Mantellato said afterwards, wearing a satisfied look.

"But I just loved the experience. Now that I've had a taste, I just want to do it again."

The thrill of diving over for his first NRL try, with family and friends cheering him on from the stands, was a surreal moment for the Central Coast-based personal trainer who just two years ago was playing for Wyong in the Newcastle Rugby League competition.

"Brilliant ball by Kevvy [Naiqama], just to send me over untouched in the corner," he said.

"And to have all the boys come over [to celebrate] after you score, that's something I'll never forget."

No less impressive was Mantellato's banana-style goalkicking ability. Not just because of his accuracy, but because of the distance of his conversions.

Capable of kicking goals from the halfway line, it is unlikely there is anyone in the NRL with a longer boot.

"I suppose it helps that I'm six foot five [inches], so I get a bit more swing on it," he said.

"I've always been a goalkicker. I practise it over and over again and it just comes naturally."

Mantellato's third goal was a pressure kick from the touchline that made it a six-point ball game with 10 minutes to play.

It would have been a nervous moment for a veteran, let alone a rookie, yet Mantellato lapped it up.

"You're playing at the opposition's home ground, so all you can hear is people booing," he said.

"But I love that, when you're getting booed from the sideline.

"To strike it over was unreal."

But just when he was thinking it was all too good to be true, reality struck, leaving Mantellato with a rib injury - either a fracture or cartilage damage - that is expected to prevent him from playing against St George Illawarra at Hunter Stadium on Saturday and possibly longer.

"With about six or seven minutes to go, I copped a pretty hard knock off Issac Luke," he said.

"I heard it pop.

"At this stage I'd say I'm definitely in doubt but we'll see what the doc says.

"If I'm out, I'll just have to work hard to get back and take my next chance with both hands."

Knights coach Wayne Bennett described the Italian international's first-up performance as "excellent".

"You're never too old, hey," Bennett said.

"He played great. He trains really hard. It's a great story."

Contracted to Newcastle until the end of this season, on a second-tier contract, Mantellato could hardly have produced a better advertisement for a full-time NRL deal.

He may, however, be facing a similar dilemma to Naiqama, in that Newcastle's first-choice back three - James McManus, Darius Boyd and Akuila Uate - are all tied to long-term deals and rarely miss games.

If Knights officials intend to retain Mantellato as back-up, then they would be advised to move quickly, because his performance would surely have been noted by rival clubs.

"I've put myself in the shop window, and if something comes of it I'll be very pleased," he said.


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