Wind the clock back to August 22, 2015.
It was a big night at Mount Smart Stadium for a 21-year-old Mason Lino as he became Vodafone Warrior #202, lining up not just against North Queensland but also none other than the great Johnathan Thurston.
Lino had some moments to savour, not least a clever grubber early on which created wing Ken Maumalo’s first NRL try and helped the injury-ravaged Vodafone Warriors to a 16-0 lead.
It didn’t finish well as the Cowboys swept to a convincing victory but there was a special moment after the final siren when Thurston sought out Lino to congratulate him on making his debut. Nice touch from a class act.
Now Lino is back on the NRL stage – and facing the Cowboys again – almost two years since his debut, the first of three matches he would play at the end of the 2015 regular season. Back then he started at standoff with Tuimoala Lolohea at halfback against North Queensland and Wests Tigers (an exceptionally young halves combination, to be sure) before lining up at halfback with Chad Townsend in the No 6 jersey in the finale against the Bulldogs.
This week there are key differences. Thurston won't be on the field tormenting the Vodafone Warriors and Lino's partner is the vastly-experienced Kieran Foran (168 NRL appearances). And, while he hasn’t played at NRL level for so long, Lino is also a far more seasoned campaigner hardened by constant exposure in the Intrust Super Premiership.
After leading the Vodafone Junior Warriors to their third NYC premiership in 2014, he had a belated start to 2015 following shoulder surgery but has since been near ever-present for the club’s reserve grade side. Indeed, he has just topped 50 appearances in the grade and, despite his comparative youth, was elevated to the captaincy during the 2016 campaign.
A calm organiser, Lino (23) is also an accomplished goal-kicker. He scored more than 500 points in 62 NYC appearances and has 364 in 51 ISP games so far including 14 tries, 152 goals and four field goals.
On Saturday night he achieves his goal of again playing in the NRL after working diligently and waiting patiently for an opportunity. It has come 41 games since his last taste and then in unfortunate circumstances after Shaun Johnson ruptured his posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee a week ago.
Townsville is a tough place to play in at the best of times but no one will relish the chance more than Lino.