Trai Fuller’s stunning rise with the Dolphins this season – deputising for injured marquee fullback Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow – has been one of the great individual stories of 2024 so far

After making a late-season NRL debut off the bench in 2023, 27-year-old Fuller, a long-term Queensland Cup player for Redcliffe, has proved a game-breaking sensation in the No.1 jersey for the surging Dolphins.

Fuller’s heroics have evoked memories of some of rugby league’s great late-bloomers – players who got their big breaks at an age where most would have given up on their dreams of NRL stardom.

John Ferguson

Brilliant winger Ferguson was finally lured to the Sydney premiership by Newtown in 1981 as a 26-year-old.

After a star turn in Wigan’s victory in the fabled ’85 Wembley final, Ferguson – then with Easts – made his NSW and Australian debuts just shy of his 31st birthday.

‘Chicka’ joined Canberra the following season and topped the competition’s tryscoring in 1988, before making his last Origin appearance in ’89.

Unlucky not to play more Test football, Ferguson scored a career-defining try to send the ’89 Grand Final into extra-time, and retired with another premiership medal in 1990 at the age of 36.

Terry Hermannson

A New Zealand Schoolboys and Junior Kiwis rep, the nuggetty Hermansson played provincial football for Canterbury from 1989 and had a English stint with Doncaster, but he suddenly became hot property after getting a chance with Souths in 1993 – a couple of months shy of his 26th birthday.

Hermansson broke into the Kiwis’ line-up in 1994 and joined the Roosters on a big-money deal the following season.

He signed an ARL loyalty contract and represented Rest of the World in 1997, before returning to the Rabbitohs for a year and finishing his top-grade career with the Warriors in 2000.

The rock-hard prop earned a Test recall in 1998-99 in his 30s, scoring a try in the famous 1998 Anzac Test boilover.

William Kennedy

Indigenous centre ‘Bubba’ Kennedy became a mature-aged sensation when he debuted for the Tigers in 1996. The 27-year-old ‘rookie’ had been spotted by Wayne Pearce via a videotape and scored eight tries as one of the season’s most impressive newcomers.

Kennedy represented Country Origin the following season – scoring a try in a 17-4 defeat of City – and crossed 12 times for battling Balmain.

Kennedy returned to the bush at the end of ’98, becoming a Group 10 legend and winning premierships with three clubs; he was still starring for the Bathurst Panthers in 2013 at the age of 45.

His son and namesake has arguably exceed his top-grade achievements in recent years at Cronulla.

Bryan Fletcher

Backrower Fletcher was not graded by the Roosters until 1997, making his first-grade debut later that season as a 23-year-old.

But the laidback Fletcher’s rise was rapid after his delayed start to top-flight football.

He became recognised as one of the game’s most skilful and dynamic forwards the following season, and made his Test and Origin debuts in ’99.

Fletcher starred in the Roosters 2002 premiership triumph before joining Souths and finished with 14 appearances for NSW and 13 Tests for Australia to his name.

Paul Rauhihi

Graded by the Warriors as a 22-year-old, giant prop Rauhihi did not make his first-grade debut until 1999 with Newcastle – a week before his 26th birthday.

Rauhihi cracked the New Zealand Test side three years later while playing for the Bulldogs and was named Dally M Prop of the Year at the age of 31 after helping the Cowboys to a maiden finals series in 2004.

The enforcer starred in the Cowboys’ run to the ’05 Grand Final and made the last of 16 Test appearances that season before joining Warrington, finally retiring at the end of 2009 aged 36.

Adam Mogg

Queensland Cup star Mogg was 24 when he broke into Parramatta’s line-up in 2002, while he became an unlikely fan favourite at Canberra after cementing a centre spot from 2003.

One of the great Origin bolters, Mogg scored two tries for injury-hit Queensland on debut in game two of the 2006 series and grabbed another sensational four-pointer in the Maroons’ dynasty-starting victory in the decider.

Mogg took up a deal with Catalans but returned to the Raiders midway through 2010.

Matt King

A former lower grader with North Sydney and Cronulla, King quit Rugby League in 2002, citing disinterest.

But after several menial jobs and a rethink, the tall three-quarter joined Brisbane Norths – a feeder club for Melbourne – and made a belated NRL debut for the Storm on his 23rd birthday late in the ’03 season.

Less than two years later, King was an Origin hero, scoring a hat-trick in NSW’s 2005 decider victory and winning a Test call-up.

The afro-haired cult hero played nine matches for the Blues and represented Australia 10 times, before starring in the Storm’s 2007 Grand Final success.

A prolific try-scorer in four subsequent seasons at Warrington, King returned to the NRL as a 31-year-old for two injury-plagued seasons at Souths.

Ben Cross

Rugged Wagga-born prop Cross made his NRL debut for Canberra in 2003 at the age of 24, but only managed 21 games in his first three seasons.

Cross’ career embarked on an upwards trajectory after joining Melbourne, however, featuring in the Storm’s 2006-07 Grand Finals and winning a NSW call-up as a 29-year-old from Newcastle in ’08.

He then endured an injury-hampered run but finished with the Knights after a strong 2010 campaign and played three seasons in the Super League, hanging up the boots in 2013.

Steve Bell

Emerald product Bell made his NRL debut for Melbourne in 2001 as a 24-year-old after spending several seasons with feeder club Brisbane Norths.

He was an outstanding success, racking up double-figure season try tallies in all but one of his eight seasons at Melbourne and Manly.

The elusive centre earned a maiden Queensland Origin call-up in 2006 just prior to his 29th birthday, while he departed for Super League two years later after scoring a try in the Sea Eagles’ 40-0 Grand Final demolition of the Storm – his 94th in 172 first grade games.

Danny Nutley

Compact prop Nutley attracted little attention when he played 10 games for the doomed South Queensland Crushers as a 23-year-old in 1997.

But he spent four impressive seasons with Warrington before returning to the NRL with Cronulla in 2002.

Nutley became the fifth-oldest Origin debutant of all time (31 years, 152 days) when he played his sole match for Queensland in 2005, while he had subsequent stints with Castleford and Sydney Roosters before finishing back at the Sharks in 2008.

Jeremy Smith

Christchurch-born, Runaway Bay junior Smith failed to break into first grade with the Northern Eagles but earned an NRL debut for Melbourne in 2004 aged 24 after starring for feeder club Brisbane Norths.

The aggressive backrower played in three straight Grand Finals (2006-08) for the Storm, broke into the New Zealand Test side as a 27-year-old in 2007, and won another premiership after his 30th birthday with St George Illawarra in 2010.

Smith made the last of his 22 Test appearances in 2012 from Cronulla, before linking with his former Dragons mentor Wayne Bennett at Newcastle.

He stayed with the Knights until 2016, when he was 36.

Fuifui Moimoi

Bullocking front-rower Moimoi was 24 when he made a belated NRL debut for Parramatta in 2004 but took several seasons to cement a regular spot.

He earned a New Zealand Test call-up in 2007, before truly arrived as a top-class prop two years later.

The 30-year-old scored a memorable try in the Eels’ 2009 grand final loss to Melbourne and was subsequently named RLIF Prop of the Year.

One of the struggling blue-and-golds’ few consistent contributors in recent seasons, Moimoi represented Tonga at the 2013 World Cup at the age of 34.

After 201 games for the Eels, Moi ventured to England and extended his career well into his 40s with stints at Leigh, Toronto Wolfpack, Workington and Rochdale.

Jeff Robson

A 21-year-old Robson was blooded in four games for Manly in 2004, but it would be another four years before he featured in the NRL again – playing two games for the Sea Eagles in 2008.

Robson was an unlikely star in Parramatta’s even unlikelier charge to the 2009 grand final, however, with the 27-year-old finally cementing a top-grade position and teaming up with rookie Daniel Mortimer in the halves.

The clever playmaker went on to amass 176 NRL appearances, featuring in three finals campaigns at Cronulla before less successful stints at the Warriors and back at the Eels.

Brenton Lawrence

Born in Mackay and raised in Adelaide, Lawrence was an Australian Schoolboys rep in 2002, but he was unable to force his way into first grade during five seasons with Canberra.

The mobile prop finally made his NRL debut for the Gold Coast at the age of 26 in 2011, playing 18 games across two seasons for the club.

But Lawrence’s career took off in 2013 after he became a low-profile acquisition for Manly.

The 28-year-old played 27 games as the Sea Eagles bravely marched to the grand final.

Lawrence was touted as a potential World Cup bolter for Australia, and while a Test or Queensland Origin call-up never eventuated, he remained at Manly until 2017 and brought up 100 NRL appearances.

Suaia Matagi

After serving a prison sentence for a drunken assault as a teenager, Matagi took up rugby league for the first time as a 20-year-old in 2008 and became a prominent player on the Auckland club scene.

The powerhouse forward’s remarkable progress was illustrated by an NRL call-up for the Warriors as a 25-year-old in 2013.

He represented Samoa for the first time that year and made a Test appearance for New Zealand in 2014.

Matagi had subsequent stints with the Roosters, Panthers and Eels, passing 100 NRL appearances before heading to Super League and turning out for Huddersfield, Castleford and Halifax.

The 36-year-old is still on Doncaster’s books in 2024.

Cody Walker

Nowra-born Walker played for the Titans’ NYC team in 2009-10, and had stints with Windsor Wolves in the NSW Cup and Easts Tigers in the Queensland Cup.

Signed by South Sydney for 2015, Walker’s NRL debut finally came a couple of months after his 26th birthday in the opening round of 2016.

The gifted ball-player has been one of the game’s most prominent five-eighths of the past decade, playing over 200 games for the Rabbitohs, representing NSW five times and playing a leading role in getting his club to the 2021 grand final.

Billy Walters

The son of five-time premiership winner and Queensland Origin coach Kevin Walters, utility Billy served a marathon Queensland Cup apprenticeship with Easts Tigers before getting a couple of NRL games with Melbourne in 2019 as a 25-year-old.

Walters played 10 games for Wests Tigers in 2020-21 but his career took off after coming under the tutelage of his dad at Brisbane from 2022.

Moulded into a hooker, he has missed just two of the Broncos’ last 61 games and was a mainstay of the club’s grand final drive in 2023.