KALYN Ponga was only four years old when Chris Heighington made his NRL debut for Wests Tigers.
Fifteen years down the track, Heighington has two grand final wins, seven Tests for England, and 317 NRL games to his name.
Come Friday night, the former Wests Tigers and Cronulla veteran will notch another career milestone when he becomes the oldest debutant to represent the Newcastle Knights, at the age of 36 years, 54 days.
The record has been held by Craig Gower, who was 35 years, 48 days when he played the first of six games for Newcastle in 2013.
The superfit middle forward will become only the third 36-year-old to play for the Knights, after Jeremy Smith and Adam MacDougall. Barring injury, he will end the season as the oldest player to have taken the field for Newcastle, overtaking Smith (36 years, 4 months, 20 days).
“Everyone keeps telling me how old I’m getting, but I feel young,” Heighington said this week. “It [the record] is a good thing to get, because obviously you realise you’ve been in the game a long time.”
He might boast a wealth of experience but Heighington will still have to deal with pre-match butterflies in the countdown to Friday’s season-opening clash with Manly.
“I’m always a bit nervous before games, even though I’ve been around for a while,” he said.
“All my family’s coming down, so I’m looking forward to it.”
A crowd approaching 25,000 is expected, and Heighington’s advice to his young teammates was to embrace the big-game atmosphere.
“You have to go for the ride,” he said. “It’s better going into a game with expectation rather than going into a game where no-one’s interested.
“That’s why we play, and that’s why we train so hard, for these big occasions.
“This is a big one, Friday night, for the club and we’ve just got to take it on board and go with it, because if you don’t, it can really pull your game back a bit.”
Heighington predicted it was “obviously going to take a little bit of time” for Newcastle’s new-look squad, featuring nine off-season recruits, to develop cohesion.
But he was confident the work ethic of Newcastle’s young players would eventually start paying dividends.
“Their willingness to learn is outrageous,” he said.
“I’ve never seen it at another club before. They want to get better … we’ve done all the work at training we can, but it’s about putting it together on the field when our heart rates are at the maximum. Hopefully our fans can get out and support us and we can have a good, red-hot crack.”