Stephen Crichton heard the jibes. He tried to not let them get to him but now he acknowledges the remarks from those around him stung.
“Everyone was saying I was only picked because of my brother,” Crichton said. “My brother spoke to me saying ‘don’t worry what people say’. I would say ‘yeah yeah I don’t care’ but I would care when people said that.”
Crichton’s older brother Christian was a star in the Penrith lower grades. He made his first grade debut for the Panthers in 2018 playing eight games before making the switch to the Bulldogs last year.
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While Christian may have been a standout, Stephen was anything but. Blessed with a superstar brother and distinctive height he eventually found his way as part of the Penrith Panthers’ junior ranks.
But first he was overlooked for the club’s under-16 Harold Matthews team just four years ago and was only an afterthought the next season as a year-young player in the under-18 SG Ball train on squad.
“I wasn’t that good when I was younger,” Crichton said. “I was just really tall and would come in on the last tackle to kick bombs. I was playing division two and three. I was just trying to keep up with my brother.
“I didn’t get a trial for Harold Matthews, I just thought it was over. I didn’t care about footy, I just played club footy for the sake of it.”
So uninspired by his lack of progression, Crichton didn’t even bother to check if he had made the short-list for the SG Ball squad. Without any social media he skipped the team’s first session.
“They posted the team on Facebook,” Crichton said. “The next day I went to school and the boys were like ‘your name is down on the list but you didn’t come’. I told my parents and they were like ‘that’s another opportunity missed’.
“The next day the coach called me because he was really close to my brother. He told me I could come in.”
The fateful call was made by then Penrith SG Ball coach Ben Harden who spent three years coaching Crichton – first at the under-18 and then the under-20 level.
Harden, now the Panthers elite player development manager, remembers first laying eyes on Crichton.
“He was very, very skinny and wasn’t breaking tackles,” Harden said. “We didn’t pick him just because he as Christian’s brother but it was the type of kid Christian was. He was a great kid from a great family. I remember during the first pre-season thinking ‘we’ve got something here’. Little did we know he was going to be our best player.”
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In just two years Crichton would end up playing first grade. He made his NRL debut in round 21 last year off the back of no pre-season training.
“Not just no NRL pre-season,” Harden said. “No pre-season at all. He played Australian Schoolboys and then went on holiday to Samoa so he didn’t really train before the start of Jersey Flegg last year. He played Flegg and then NSW Cup and onto first grade. The sky is the limit for him.”
Crichton has made adjustments off the field too – curbing his love of “cheat meals”. His meteoric rise could culminate in a premiership ring and an Origin debut.
“A lot of kids message me now asking for advice,” Crichton said. “I tell them not to worry if they don’t make teams. I didn’t make Harold Matthews, I was in the shadow of my brother.
“It’s down to how hard you want to work by yourself when you’re at the park late at night.”