Tom Starling is used to being taunted by rival players about his height.
He’s been doubted his whole career because at just 170 cms tall, most wrote off his chances of amounting to anything in the game.
“I know a lot of people have looked at me and dismissed me as being too small,” the 20-year-old hooker says.
One of those doubters was Knights coach Nathan Brown.
Brown openly admits that when he first arrived at the club in 2016, he struggled to understand how someone of Starling’s stature could compete at NRL level as a hooker.
But over the past couple of seasons, Starling’s work ethic, big heart and sheer will to succeed has won the coach over.
Which is why this Central Coast kid who never once stopped believing, will make his NRL debut against St George Illawarra off the bench as Danny Levi’s back-up on Old Boys’ Day at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday.
“It’s a dream come true for me,”Starling told the Newcastle Herald.
“It’s going to be a real special occasion running out for my debut game in front of a big home crowd on Old Boys’ Day. It’s going to be massive.
“I’m just rapt that Browny has enough belief in me to give me an opportunity. I’m just so excited and I’m not going to let him or the boys down.”
Brown broke the news of his selection to a “shocked” Starling on Tuesday prior to the squad being announced.
But the young hooker, who was preparing to play for the Knights’ Jersey Flegg side in a semifinal against Mounties on Saturday, had to wait until the following day for the NRL to give his selection the all clear as he is a development player and not in the club’s top 30-man squad.
“I was at home doing a bit of housework. I took this call but I didn’t have Browny’s name saved in my phone so I didn’t know who it was,” Starling said.
“I was shocked. I didn’t really see it coming.”
Starling rang his mother Joanne first but she was in a work meeting and couldn’t take his call but his father David picked up.
“He was over the moon. He’s been my biggest supporter along with mum and my brothers Jackson and Josh.
“I ended up texting mum and getting her out of her work meeting to tell her. She said she had a tear in her eye and wanted to leave work and give me a big hug so it was all pretty special.
”I was a little bit anxious having to wait until the next day to see if I would get the all clear from the NRL so when I got told after training on Tuesday, I couldn’t have been happier.”
Born in Windsor, Starling moved to the Central Coast with his family when he was 10 and played juniors for the Kincumber Colts.
But it was in a high school game for St Edwards College that Knights’ junior recruitment boss Troy Pezet and the late Graham Murray notice this little bloke regularly knocking over bigger kids.
In 2014, he played Harold Matts Under 16’s and has since worked his way up through the grades.
Starling says he has always known his build could have been a problem but he has never let it get to him.
“I just know that I have to work a lot harder than the bloke who is a bit bigger and taller than me,” he said.
“I try and tag myself along with some of the bigger boys in the gym and try and get my strength right and do my speed work. Just make sure I’m always working harder than the average bloke.
“I’ve had to try and make the absolute most of what I’ve got and get the most out of myself and perfect that to compensate for what I’m lacking in size.
“I can’t control how tall I’m going to be but I can control how strong, how fast and how fit I’m going to be so that’s what I do.
“My dad’s always been big on working as hard as you can. He’s told me there is always going to be people out there that will doubt you so you try and keep the ones who believe in you close.”
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Starling says he wears the taunting about his size from rival players as a badge of honour.
“It happens all the time. But I love it when I run on the field and hear the rival team yell out ‘Starling’s on, let’s get at him’,” he said.
“I just use all that stuff to challenge myself. That’s what footy is all about. Stepping up to the plate and giving it your very best. I’ve adjusted to it. It’s something I’ve never really worried about. I’ve always been a small kid, I’ve never been any other way.”
Starling knows the big Dragons pack will target him when he gets his opportunity on Saturday.
They’ll have done their homework. “They’ll come at me for sure,”he said.
“It’s about communicating with the bigger boys around you in defence and making sure they are on the same page. But I’ll be going in hard at them and not being timid and backing my technique to get the job done.
There will be no shortage of support for the young hooker among the anticipated 25,000-strong crowd.
Starling says more than 25 family and “a heap of mates” will be there to cheer him on.