FORMER Knights recruitment manager Peter Mulholland is renowned for spotting talent.
Mulholland, who now holds that position at the Dragons, was on assignment for the Knights in Auckland three years ago to run the rule over several Kiwi kids he had been keeping tabs on.
One of those boys became the Knights’ 260th first-grader last Sunday when he made his NRL debut in a 30-28 loss to Cronulla at Hunter Stadium.
Just 16 at the time, Danny Levi was playing for Wellington Orcas against Auckland in a New Zealand under17s game and was unaware he was on Mulholland’s short list.
He thought Mulholland was there to scout outside back Brody Lam, who was playing for the opposition but is now his team-mate in Newcastle’s National Youth Cup (under20s) team.
‘‘I knew who he was,’’ Mulholland said.
‘‘He came over originally to live with a family in Penrith and I saw him play at Glenmore Park.
‘‘I was at Canterbury at the time, and he couldn’t make Penrith’s Harold Matthews (under16s) side, so from there he went to the Roosters to play Harold Matthews.
‘‘Then he went home, so I asked [former Knights back-rower and Kiwi international] David Lomax to keep an eye on him over there. When he started playing first grade over there against men, I got interested again and it went from there.
‘‘He’s an old-fashioned hooker who was 10 metres ahead of everybody else in his thinking.
‘‘He could roll the rucks, he was strong in defence, he played the whole 80 minutes of the game, and his skill level out of dummy-half was great.’’
The Wellington-born Randwick Kingfishers junior agreed to join the Knights in 2014 but instead arrived midway through 2013 to help cover injuries, and he has not looked back.
When regular hooker Adam Clydsdale was ruled out last week because of a shoulder injury, Knights coach Rick Stone called Levi up to relieve Tyler Randell off the bench. His parents, Danny and Dhana, flew in from Wellington to watch him realise his dream.
‘‘Earlier on, it was a goal of mine just to play NRL, but this year I really set a goal for myself to try to debut this year, so to achieve that was an amazing feeling,’’ Levi said.
‘‘My parents were so stoked to be able to come over and watch, especially Dad, because he was my trainer and coach back home and he’s been following me ever since I’ve been growing up.
‘‘So to be able to play in front of them on the big stage, that was a really proud moment.
‘‘It wasn’t the result we wanted but we had a pretty young team and we’re still trying to mould that first-grade team, so we just want our supporters to stick by us and hopefully we can do better this week.’’
Aged 18, Levi captained a Knights NYC team including Sione Mata’utia, Jake Mamo and Joseph Tapine to the 2014 minor premiership, was named in the NYC team of the year, and represented the Junior Kiwis in a 15-14 victory over the Junior Kangaroos.
‘‘I’ve captained a few sides back home,’’ he said.
‘‘I’ve got a bit of a big mouth I guess, but I was really happy to captain the side last year.’’
Making the most of the chance to work one on one with former Knights, NSW and Australian hooker and captain Danny Buderus, Levi continued to develop and improve his game while training with the NRL and NSW Cup squads.
Levi, who is studying Certificate III in Fitness at the Hunter TAFE Tighes Hill campus, played a handful of rugby union games as a schoolboy but said league has always been his passion.
‘‘I played rugby when I was really young but it was only touch back then and Dad wanted me to get into tackle, so I got put into league and I’ve played that ever since,’’ he said.
‘‘Back when I was under14s and under16s I played a bit in the halves but I made the move back to hooker when I was under17s and I’ve been playing there ever since.
‘‘Working with ‘Bedsy’ [Buderus], he’s taught me heaps, especially a lot of attitude-based stuff, so with him by my side it’s been a lot easier.
‘‘I really look up to Bedsy, and my favourite player is Issac Luke so I watch him a lot as well.’’
Levi played 27 minutes either side of half-time against Cronulla last Sunday and made 18 tackles for one miss and one that was ineffective.
He only made two runs from dummy-half, and went close to scoring on one of those darts, but concentrated on providing slick service to his receivers and runners.
‘‘I thought he was pretty solid,’’ Stone said.
‘‘Any time you jump into the NRL scenario for a 19-year-old making his debut, I think he acquitted himself pretty well physically and with his decision-making process.
‘‘How he handled himself when he went out there, I was happy for him. Dan’s been with us for a couple of years of now and hopefully he’s going to have a big future for us.’’
Stone has retained Levi in the squad to play Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
‘‘I was just happy to be out there and hopefully I’ve done enough to hold a spot again.’’