WHEN he was 10 years old, James McManus’s family decided to swap the drizzle of Scotland’s highlands for the stifling heat of Katherine in the Northern Territory. "It’s a bit out in the sticks, but I loved it," McManus says.
He went from balancing a round ball on his boot to learning how to pass a Steeden. "I’d never heard of rugby league," he says. "I didn’t understand any of it. When I came to Australia, I played a couple of games and I spent most of it offside, telling people to kick me the ball."
Today McManus has firmly established himself in the Newcastle side and yesterday was sized up for his suits and uniform as a member of the 40-man Blues Origin squad. The 23-year-old is a strong chance to make the final cut and run out for NSW on the wing this June.
"First and foremost, I want to play well for my club," he says. "It really means a lot to me this year. We’re looking to do big things at Newcastle and we don’t want to be sitting there watching TV in September. I want to play well for my club and anything comes off the back of that is just a bonus."
Knights teammate and fellow Blues squad member Kurt Gidley thinks McManus is a fair chance for an Origin jersey.
"Since his debut, he hasn’t a missed a game playing first grade, which is a great achievement," Gidley says. "His rise to where he is today, it’s a credit to the hard work he’s put in. He’s one of the most dedicated trainers. He stays behind, as most blokes do, to do extras. But Jimmy has been like that from the start."
Today, only a slight tinge of his Scottish accent can be heard in McManus’s voice. His accent was so thick when he touched down in Katherine that, aside from his family, people really didn’t know what he was trying to say. "No one could understand a word I saying," McManus remembers. "A lot of the time, I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying as well. With time, two years, I lost the accent."
After spending three years in Katherine, surviving a flood that tore through the town, he went to Palmerston High School in Darwin, studied the game of rugby league on television and was chosen by the Northern Territory Institute of Sport on their rugby league program.
"It took me a lot of watching," McManus says. "A lot of following it on TV. A lot of schoolyard stuff and finally after that I put my hand up to play the game."
At an Australian schoolboys championship, he was spied by Knights recruiter Warren Smiles. "He’s studied the game hard," Smiles says. "He knew what he wanted and he knew he wanted to play NRL. He was very intense and mature. He’s always worked hard to do everything right."
Before he lived in the heat of the Top End, before league, he lived in Fochabers – a village in the district of Moray. "It was a pretty obscure little place but it was good." His childhood memories of Scotland? The "blankets of snow" in the wintertime, "drizzle and soccer".