Wests Tigers and NSW prop Aaron Woods a chip off the old Block
The Sunday Telegraph
June 23, 2013 12:00AM
EVEN in the middle of winter, Balmain legend Laurie Nichols would stalk the sidelines of Leichhardt Oval in his black and gold singlet, shadow boxing as he talked-up his beloved Tigers.
Come Wednesday night at Suncorp Stadium, Nichols, gone but never forgotten, will no doubt be looking down at the Brisbane cauldron, throwing left uppercuts and right hands while chanting one of his famous, rhyming one-liners.
The reason for the Balmain icon’s celebration will be the 109kg, 1.94m Leichhardt Juniors product, Aaron Woods, making his debut in the front row for NSW.
The rise of Woods, from a kid who grew up living above the newsagent in Norton St, Leichhardt, to the Blues engine room is a throwback to the halcyon days of the 1980s.
Back then, Darling St would be decked out in black and orange every time the Tigers were on a roll into September and the Balmain District Junior Rugby League proudly launched champions like Wayne Pearce, Paul Sironen and Benny Elias all the way to the NSW front line.
In State of Origin II on Wednesday night, Woods will make history as the first Leichhardt Junior to represent the Blues.
Dig a little deeper and it’s impossible to miss the charm associated with his ascent to the state side - a wonderful story about how his mum Rebecca, herself born-and-raised in Leichhardt, became pregnant at 17 and raised Woods on her own for the first five years of his life.
What rocks you back when you initially meet Woods is his maturity. He’s 22, but he could easily pass for 32.
Ask about his background and you begin to understand his old head on young shoulders.
He has only met his biological father a handful of times and no longer speaks to him. On Wednesday night, Woods won’t know if he’s watching or not.
“It happened when I was young. I don’t talk to him at all. I’ve met him a couple of times, but it was Mum’s decision and that’s what happened so I just stay out of it,” Woods said.
Aaron Woods actually started his life as Aaron Graham, taking his mother’s maiden name until she married his step-father, Clint Woods, years later.
“I can’t remember how old I was, I get asked that a lot. I think I was about nine or 10,” Woods said. "Mum married him when I was younger and so I took his name on. She changed her name, so I changed mine.
“He was our footy coach for quite some time at Leichhardt Juniors, but him and Mum split up last year. I haven’t spoken to him for a while.”
These days, Rebecca Woods works at the Leichhardt bus depot and drives buses around Sydney. Back when Aaron was growing up, she juggled jobs at the Victoria Hotel in Annandale and the Imperial on Norton St as well as raising a son on her own.
Eventually, she settled on a job at the Norton St newsagent, with the Woods family living above the shop.
“I was a single mum for a while and as normal I did it hard. I worked and paid my childcare fees. Aaron’s very humble and all our family are the same,” Rebecca Woods said.
"We’ll give to people but we’ll never take off people. More recently, he’s taken on the role of being the father figure of his sister, Brooke, who’s 11. He was good at school but football was always his number one.
"I was going through our photos the other day and I saw his pre-school notebook where he said, ‘Aaron enjoys kicking the football.’
"Then I saw his year six journal where it said what do you want to be doing when you grow up and he said, ‘I want to be playing first-grade football in 2012.’
"He’s always just been a very humble person. In his life he had bad news a couple of years ago when he tore his hammy off the bone and he was told that he’d never play footy again.
“But he just saw it as another challenge to try and overcome. I’m very proud of him.”
It’s easy to make the link between Woods and Balmain local juniors like Pearce, Sironen and Elias. But the similarities between the Blues’ newest big unit and Tigers, NSW and Kangaroo Test legend Steve “Blocker” Roach are frightening.
Blocker might have cut his teeth as a junior in Wollongong, but no one epitomised “Tiger tough” better than the Balmain bookend who was the cornerstone of the club in the 1980s.
Like Woods on Wednesday, Blocker made his NSW Blues debut in Brisbane when Suncorp Stadium was known as Lang Park, the original Cane Toad cauldron.
“I nursed Mitchell Pearce when he was a day old and I’ve known this bloke most of his life and the two of them are in the state side. It’s unreal,” Roach said.
"This bloke’s unfazed by anything. People are at him about making his debut in an Origin at the cauldron and he just says, ‘Oh well, you’ve got to make your debut sometime.’
"He’s the type of bloke who’ll get in there and he’ll be in the Blues set-up for the next eight years. You watch him go.
“We talk on a regular basis because he’s best mates with my son, Liam, so he’s over at my place for dinner all the time. He’s a tremendous kid.”
Talk to Woods about Leichhardt being the eighth wonder of the world and he’ll beam a big smile straight back at you: “2040 for life.” he laughs.
For the uninitiated, that’s Leichhardt’s postcode.
On the field, Woods is all fast footwork at the line, clever offload and massive work rate. Off it, he’s immensely proud of his inner-west upbringing.
The Leichhardt Juniors have hosted the Aaron Woods Cup in pre-season for the past two years. Woods presents the trophy and is still in contact with president Phil Taylor and life members Mick Manning and Brian Coleman.
“I had a phone call from him earlier in the week. He offered if I wanted to come up to Brisbane and told me he would organise the tickets and everything,” Manning said.
“That’s the type of kid he is. Loyal. Honest.”
Manning was driving tow trucks in the 1980s when Roach, Elias and Pearce were making names for themselves and Tigers legend Keith Barnes was still in charge of Balmain.
He has seen plenty of champion local juniors make the grade and rates Woods alongside all of them.
Given where he’s come from and what he’s already achieved, you can guarantee that Woods won’t let NSW down on Wednesday night.
You can guarantee Nichols, wherever he may be, will be bellowing and shadow boxing to one of his favourite lines: “Black and Gold, we never fold.”