Rugby League

NRL Auckland Nines: Canberra Raiders recruit Zac Santo embraces second chance

It was December last year and Zac Santo kept hoping the phone would ring.

Every NRL team had already returned to pre-season training, but the  winger was without a club after being released by the North Queensland Cowboys after five seasons, including three as a star of the under-20s competition.

Canberra Raiders recruit Zac Santo will debut for the club at the Auckland Nines this weekend.
Canberra Raiders recruit Zac Santo will debut for the club at the Auckland Nines this weekend. Photo: Jay Cronan

Then, the Canberra Raiders came calling.

"It was a late deal, I didn't really have anywhere to go after the season ended at the Cowboys, so I was sitting around waiting for my manager to get back to me," Santo said.

"He had a couple of offers, but I don't know how I'd go living in Sydney because I'm from a smaller town.

"He said Canberra and I said I'd definitely have a go at that."


Santo is exactly the type of player the Raiders have had great success with in the past - someone who has had limited opportunities elsewhere just begging for a chance.

The 22-year-old will make his Raiders debut at this weekend's Auckland Nines, a tournament he has fond memories of having helped the Cowboys claimed the inaugural title in 2014.

It was the same tournament where Lachlan Coote tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

Santo was earmarked to fill the vacancy at fullback, but Michael Morgan got the nod and never looked back.

 "I was probably one good game away," Santo said

"(Cowboys coach Paul Green) just sort of said Morgo's got the experience, I'll give him a go and see how he goes.

"That was it."

Santo, meanwhile, tore it up in the Queensland Cup, finishing as the competition's second-leading try-scorer last year with 26, but only made the one NRL appearance in 2014.

 "It was frustrating. I thought I couldn't really do much better," Santo said.

"I was scoring a fair few tries, that's all you can ask for as a winger.

"Hopefully it's a new beginning here in Canberra and we'll see how we go."

Standing only 175cm, Santo doesn't have the size of the modern-day NRL outside back, but makes up for it with sheer pace and an ability to find the try-line.

But that alone won't be enough to secure a spot in a Raiders' backline that appears secure.

Sisa Waqa and Edrick Lee will certainly have the wing spots for the season-opener against the Penrith Panthers, while Jack Wighton is improving every game he plays at fullback.

Santo has been training with the Raiders at fullback and could be the back-up if Wighton is injured or on representative duty.

It's an unlikely scenario, but Santo can take heart from how Jordan Rapana was himself signed on a second-tier deal before taking his chance with both hands.

"All it takes is you just need a crack," Santo said.

"I played against (Rapana) in the Q-Cup when he was playing for Souths Logan and he was really good.

"All you need is just a shot and you can grab it."

Santo's housemate - PNG international Kato Ottio - will be thinking the same thing.

Less than two years since first his rugby league game, Ottio joined the Raiders on a train and trial deal.

He will also make his Raiders debut at the Nines and Raiders coach Ricky Stuart intends to sign Ottio for the rest of the season.

"Kato's my roomie at the moment so I'm keeping him grounded, he's really excited to play," Santo said.

"He played a bit of second row last year so he used to run straight at our half and tire him out.

"He's a big boy, he's definitely built for the forwards and he's very quick as well."