Zac Cini had been dreaming of playing for the Wests Tigers since watching Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah lead the club to grand final glory as a five year-old in 2005 but his debut in Sunday’s 16-8 defeat of the Dragons exceeded his expectations.
After being presented with his first NRL jersey by Farah in the WIN Stadium dressing rooms, Cini scored a try and had another disallowed in front of 70 family and friends as the Tigers responded to speculation about coach Michael Maguire by storming to their second win of the season.
“It is a dream just to play footy but to score on debut with my mates in that corner, just the support they gave was awesome and made it 10 times better,” Cini said.
“I got about 20 tickets for family and my mates organised a bus. I think there was about 50 of them that jumped on the bus and sat in that corner. You could definitely hear them.”
Match: Dragons v Wests Tigers
Round 8 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Cini grew up in Penrith playing alongside the likes of Stephen Crichton, Spencer Leniu and Matt Burton but always wanted to play for the Tigers and after being selected for the 2019 Australian Schoolboys he was given the chance.
"I grew up supporting the Tigers," Cini said.
"I loved Benji in 2005 and I used to sit in the lounge room watching him on TV. When he played the grand final I was five and I used to go out into the yard and try to practise the Benji step.
Zac attack: Maguire full of praise for dream debutant Cini
"When I got a chance to come over, to be able to train with Benji and Robbie Farrah … he presented my jersey today so that was a special moment."
Tigers centre Tommy Talau played with Cini in the 2019 Australian schoolboys, along with rookie five-eighth Jock Madden, and they became team-mates again after James Roberts was ruled out of the St George Illawarra clash with a shoulder injury.
The Tigers needed to get an exemption for Cini from the NRL as the 20 year-old is on a development contract but their outside back options are limited.
"“I trained a little bit during the week and on Friday night Madge called me and said we still need to get an exemption from the NRL but I want to play you on the left wing," Cini said. "I was just stoked and didn’t know what to say."
Maguire said Cini was an example of the young talent emerging at the Tigers, who are now just two points outside the top eight.
"We obviously needed a change and a young kid like Zac shows what they’re capable of," Maguire said.
Cini scores and his mates lift the roof off the grandstand
"We had to do a bit of soul searching during the week to make sure we could turn it around. They fought for 80 minutes, it was ugly at times, but that's the team they’re capable of being."
Cini’s 48th-minute try revived memories of the debut of Penrith winger Charlie Staines last year, with his family and friends cheering wildly when he scored in front of where they were seated in the south-eastern corner of WIN Stadium.
The Dragons lost star centre Zac Lomax with a thumb injury midway through the first half and the Tigers successfully targeted the right edge where he usually defends, with Cini and Joey Leilua scoring second-half tries.
Lomax kicked a fourth-minute penalty goal and winger Cody Ramsey finished a movement in which the Dragons shifted the ball from side to side through eight sets of hands to score in the eighth minute.
However, momentum turned in the 23rd minute after winger David Nofaluma leapt above Ramsey and tapped back a Luke Brooks cross-field kick for Talau to score and five-eighth Adam Doueihi converted from out wide.
A Corey Norman penalty goal gave the Dragons an 8-6 half-time time lead but they could not match the Tigers after the break and slumped to their third consecutve defeat after failing to score a point in the final 40 minutes.