I’VE been asked a few times this week what it will be like to play my last game for the Wests Tigers.
It’s not an easy thing for me to put into words because I will forever be grateful for everything the Tigers have given me — a lot of the best times in my life I have shared with our players, coaches, support staff and our great fans.
At the same I am moving clubs, not retiring, and the focus on Sunday is getting a win against the Warriors.
That’s the way we’re all approaching it — another two points on the line and a chance to thank our faithful for their support through a difficult season.
Personally, it’s unreal to be able to run out onto Leichhardt one last time because being a Balmain junior, my childhood memories are filled with moments at this ground. It’s a special place.
It’s fitting that I’ll close this chapter of my career with a game against the Warriors because for some strange reason a lot of my biggest moments as a Tiger have come against them.
My first ever game at Leichhardt was against them when Ivan Cleary was their coach back in 2011, so this Sunday’s game kind of feels like coming full circle.
Later that year we played the Warriors again in the second week of finals after one of my favourite memories — a win over the Dragons in week one.
The Warriors knocked us out in a heartbreaking 22-20 loss. They were a good side that year and went on to lose the grand final to Manly.
To be honest though, neither of those two games — my Leichhardt debut or the final — were as memorable as the other time we played the Warriors that year, my first visit to New Zealand as a first grader.
It was round 14 and by that stage I had been dropped back to the under 20s after getting a taste for NRL level football off the bench to start the season.
Tim Sheens was the coach and he named me 18th man for the trip — I was supposed to be playing under 20s and then act as an emergency player for first grade if someone got injured.
All of a sudden that plan went out the window when one of my teammates (I honestly can’t remember who) forgot their passport.
Sheensy came to me and said ‘you’re in’ and that was it.
It’s all a bit of a blur after that but I think it was Toddy Payten who came over and said to me: ‘This is your opportunity, take it with both hands and don’t look back.’
And I think I stayed in first grade for the rest of the year, so obviously that message sunk in and I started to get what it means to be a first grader.
The player losing his passport was a weird start to the trip but it was nothing compared to what happened once we got over there.
First, the game against the Warriors was one out of the box. We were down 22-4 and come back to win 26-22, when Gareth Ellis flicked it out of his backside to Benji when he wasn’t looking, then whooshka, we scored.
Huge win, we’re all buzzing, but the trouble was we couldn’t get out of New Zealand after it.
If you remember back to 2011, an ash cloud floated over from a volcano over in Chile and it parked itself straight over New Zealand and parts of Australia. Visibility was crazy, so planes were no chance of landing safely.
We had to wait three days, with virtually no gear, because you only travel light when you’re going over to play.
Wade McKinnon had a mate over there who hooked us up with some shirts we wore when we were training, which were these tattoo brand shirts and looked hilarious.
Eventually we got word that we could travel and we flew back to Brisbane and got a charter plane.
I get claustrophobic, I’m petrified of lifts, and this plane was tiny so I was freaking out. A couple of guys in our team wanted to drive home. But because we were playing two or three days later Sheensy wouldn’t let anyone do it.
It was crazy.
Playing the Warriors is one thing, playing at Leichhardt one more time is something else.
I remember my first ever NRL game against the Bulldogs out at ANZ Stadium, the day after my 20th birthday, in round one, 2011.
It was a Monday night against a pretty handy side and I came off the bench for the last 20 minutes. It was unreal.
I’ll never forget running at Andrew Ryan and Corey Payne, thinking gee this is the NRL. I got up thinking far out, that was a good hit. But after that the nerves were gone.
The next week we played at Leichhardt and I came on in the first half. It was a Saturday night and it was just unbelievable, I just wanted more.
I had to pinch myself because I’d grown up just around the corner in Norton Street and all I wanted to do as a kid was play footy.
I was lucky enough that I got to play their twice as a young fella before I got into the Tigers system.
In the juniors we played our semi finals at Birchgrove Oval and if you made the grand final you played at Leichhardt Oval, so that was huge.
That was from under 9s upwards. I played in two junior grand finals so I got to play twice at Leichhardt and it was just unbelievable.
We got to share the same sheds as the first graders, I always loved playing footy and always wanted to be a first grader.
Even when I wasn’t in the grounds at Leichhardt I was somewhere close by, scheming with my mates to get closer to the action.
I used to walk up to Leichhardt from school and Balmain players would be kicking the ball over at goal, behind the Keith Barnes stand at that end.
They’d kick the ball over, so me and my mates used to try to take the ball and run off and take it home and have a first grade footy.
I’ll always cherish those memories and they’ll give me something to smile about when I think about the footy field.
I might be moving on next season but I reckon Tigers fans have got plenty to be excited about because of how much talent is coming through.
One of the big positives is the way Luke Brooks has finished this season, even though he’s had some bad luck with hamstring injuries.
I reckon since Mitchell Moses has left, Brooksy’s stepped up to the plate. He knew he had to take more ownership of the side and he’s started taking the line on a lot more and he became so much more dangerous.
That Manly game, he took control and he was awesome.
He’s become a lot more dominant which is a good sign for next year, and then they’ve got Josh Reynolds who will bring a lot of energy to the club.
We missed Luke last week, so it’s great to have him back for Sunday and I can’t wait to play with him one last time.
I went to school with Luke, so it’s an honour to play a game with a bloke like that, he’ll be a name we’re talking about for years to come.
To get one last crack with him, Tedesco as well, you never know if you’ll be in the rep sides with him or if you’re going to get picked or not.
Especially in these last six weeks post-Origin, James and I have just made the most of it and we’re really enjoying each other’s game, if you’ve noticed the way we’re playing, we play a lot off each other.
It’s sad in a way that we’re splitting up, it’s a bit of mixed emotions. You look forward to your last game but it’s disappointing we can’t make the eight.
Still, I’ll be doing everything I can alongside the boys on Sunday to make sure we finish 2017 on a high.
Wonder who proof read this for him… Must have been really annoying having to edit out ‘it is what it is’ every second sentence.