Is there a more endearing young gun in the game at the moment than James Tedesco? Even more than Robbie Farah, he seems to personify the improbability of the Tigers, the way they seem to carry on and make do against all odds. While various teams have expressed interest in this up-and-coming fullback ever since he made his debut in 2012 – the Bulldogs, the Roosters and, most notoriously, the Raiders – he’s remained with Wests, and might just be their biggest contender for a one-team player if Farah ends up leaving next year. No doubt he caused some controversy with his backflip in the middle of last year, signing to Canberra only to reneg at the eleventh-hour. But in some ways, it was an old-school backflip, less about raking in more cash – he’s actually getting paid less at the Tigers than he would have at the Raiders – than genuine team affiliation. When a player decides to stay with a team for financial reasons, the etiquette is that they attribute their decision to team culture, but when Tedesco said that he’d decided to stay at Wests to be with his mates, his coach and his fans, it felt genuine in a way that it didn’t say, for DCE, upon his return to Manly earlier this year.
And that old-school footy mentality is a big part of Tedesco’s personality. Raised in Menangle and representing the Magpies in the S.G. Ball Cup, he seems to fill out the Wests part of the Wests Tigers formula more than any other player on the team at the moment. If the Tigers are really more of a Campbelltown outfit than a Balmain outfit these days – at least in spirit – then Tedeso feels like their mascot. Combined with Luke Brooks, he’s become once of their most instantly recognisable presences on the field, especially now that he’s grown out his beard, with both Andrew and Matty Johns predicting this dynamo fullback-halfback pair will follow in the wake of Langer and Walters, and Slater and Cronk, respectively. Once upon a time, players stayed at clubs longer and had time to form the kinds of onfield relationships that produced Rugby League dynasties, and I sense that Brooks and Tedesco might be one of those old-school pairings that are destined to stick together through thick and thin. Admittedly, I felt the same way about Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds – I still can’t quite believe Hodkinson is leaving for the Knights – but something about the synergy between Tedesco, Brooks and the Tigers seems more lasting.
At the same time, Tedesco has been one of the most injury-prone players on the field over the last couple of years, suffering a torn ligament in 2012, a cracked fibula in 2013, and both a fractured kneecap and strained ankle in 2014. Despite appearances at City-Country Origin and the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, where he played for Italy, that unlucky run has understandably prevented him achieveing his full potential, even if what he has achieved is already pretty prodigious. For the most physically punishing football code in the world, it’s easy to become immune to how risky Rugby League actually is, and so there’s something especially sympathetic about players like Tedesco who haven’t quite settled into the superhuman strength that seems to be required. Watching Sam Kasiano or Frank Pritchard take a big hit on the field is like watching an action hero onscreen, but there’s something real, vulnerable and fragile about Tedesco’s body that makes his footy just that little bit more breathless.
On top of all that, Tedesco is an articulate guy. Of course, that’s not the most important skill for a sportsman, but it does help, and the way Teddy presents himself off the field is becoming more and more a part of the Tigers brand, with interviewers tending to seek him out as much as Farah after games to get his take on the action. Apparently, he started training as a PDHPE teacher before becoming a full-time footy player, which makes sense, since there’s something about the modest, thoughtful and almost self-deprecating way he explains himself – light years away from the attitude of so many League players – that syncs well with the patience required of a teacher. While some footy players grow up through indiscretions – think Mitchell Moses, for a Tigers example – and some footy players never really grow up, Tedesco is one of those characters who seems to mature through his dedication to the sport, and always feels a little more assured and confident each time you hear him talk. For this young gun, things can only get better, and it’s going to be a real delight to follow his career – and incredible to think it’s only just beginning.