It has been quite a journey for Pakistan-born Wyong Roos recruit Omar Slaimankhel, best known in rugby league circles for dominating the under-20s competition with the New Zealand Warriors from 2010-2012.
At just 23 years old, Slaimankhel has won two competitions with the Warriors under-20s team, made his first grade debut and played Japanese rugby for two years with the Canon Eagles – and now he’s back to pursue his NRL dream with the Sydney Roosters.
However, Slaimankhel’s story goes deeper than just football. Born in Kalu Khurd, a small town in Pakistan, after his parents fled a war-torn village in Afghanistan, the elusive outside back’s start to life – and journey to rugby league – is one of a kind.
Looking for a fresh start, the Slaimankhels set off for New Zealand, ultimately giving son Omar a better shot at life, a high-class education and a shot at a career in professional sport.
“I was born in Pakistan, [but] my parents are both Afghan, so we’ve got the Afghan culture going on at home, it’s pretty cool,” said Slaimankhel.
“We moved to New Zealand when I was two, so I was pretty young. First generation in New Zealand so it’s been pretty different, but pretty good at the same time.”
While Slaimankhel grew up in New Zealand predominantly playing rugby, it was more a case of having fun in the park with his extended family or friends than taking it seriously.
It was not until he was 15 years old when he was picked for Auckland Boys’ Grammar XV, that he developed a desire to pursue a career in football – whether that be in union or the Greatest Game of All.
“I grew up playing footy, I played for fun around the park. I’ve got a big family, so I had brothers and cousins that would always live close by and we’d run around the footy park,” said Slaimankhel.
“The first serious games I played was for our high school team Auckland Boys’ Grammar First XV, so that’s when I really started enjoying it and really wanting to move on with footy.”
He earned a trial with the junior New Zealand Warriors development squad, and that switch to rugby league allowed him to play an instrumental role in the Warriors’ 2010 and 2011 under-20s premierships.
His prolific try-scoring record of 47 tries in 51 games ultimately earned him a place in the 2011 Toyota Cup Team of the Year, and eventually a first grade debut against Cronulla in Round 15 of the 2012 season.
“2010 and 2011 – those were two awesome years. Playing at ANZ [Stadium] as a 17- or 18-year-old – and winning two grand finals – it was awesome,” said Slaimankhel.
“Then in 2012 I made my first grade debut. I didn’t think it was happening, I was just at home and was going to play the 20s that weekend against the Sharks, and Manu [Vatuvei] got injured that week during training. I got a call and I was pretty shocked, I didn’t believe it at first. It was a dream come true, I loved it. I think it was five games that I played for them, the best games I’ve ever had.”
As a 20-year-old, Slaimankhel had the NRL world at his feet with time on his side.
But then he shocked the rugby league community by signing with the Canon Eagles to play Japanese rugby, but the reasoning behind it proves that his love and passion for the game cannot be questioned.
An irritating finger injury with a three- to six-month recovery process meant Slaimankhel would miss most of an NRL season.
As the Japanese season starts in September, he made the transition purely due to the fact that he did not want to sit on the sideline.
“I injured my finger in 2012. I wasn’t really comfortable going to an NRL team where I’d miss the first half of the season, so I thought I’d try and go [to Japan], because the Japanese season started as soon as I would’ve been healed,” explained Slaimankhel.
“I went to Japan, but they could only offer two years, so it was either that or miss a year of [NRL]. So I chose that and it was something I loved doing. I made friends that I’ll have forever there so it was such a good experience; it’s something I don’t regret at all.”
After two seasons for the Eagles, Slaimankhel this year made the decision to return to rugby league to restart his NRL career, with the Roosters offering him a contract mid-way throughout the 2015 season.
“I love playing league. I loved playing league before I left and I always loved growing up and playing league. It was more of a decision if I stayed any longer in Japan I’d probably be there for the next 10 years,” said Slaimankhel.
“I didn’t want to get to that age where I didn’t want to come back when I was 26 or 27. I turned 23 this year, so I still get another crack at it, so hopefully things go well, and I’ll start playing first grade soon again. I talked to my manager and he asked if I wanted to go to the Roosters, and they’ve been the best team for the last three years.”
“[Moving to the Roosters] was more like a learning curve. I wanted to go to the best team and test myself, so hopefully I get a good pre-season with them this year and hopefully play next year.”
The Wyong Roos is home for Slaimankhel at the moment, and he is focused on trying to go all the way with them in season 2015.
“[Playing for Wyong is] so good, the boys are awesome. We go up there once or twice a week before the game and it’s amazing – the boys are so tight,” said Slaimankhel.
“Everyone loves playing with each other. It shows on the field how good we have it, so we love playing for Wyong and we’re having a good crack at it this year, so hopefully if things go well – we’ll probably go all the way.”
Roos coach Rip Taylor says Slaimankhel has had a positive impact on the club both on and off the field.
“Omar has been a plus for the joint, he’s certainly been a character. He’s got some great stories. I’m not sure whether they’re all true, but they’re worth listening to,” said Taylor.
“But football wise, Omar is a very smart footballer. When he came back from Japanese rugby he would admit he came back a little bit overweight, and I think he’s just starting to get to a little bit of form and fitness that allows him to be the fullback that he was in NYC.”
It has already been an incredible journey for the 23-year-old and, with time on his side and an NRL dream at his feet, this is likely just the beginning.