Greg Bird and Luke Bailey have taken vastly different paths to the significant milestones they celebrate at WIN Jubilee Stadium on Sunday which is appropriate considering they are vastly different characters.
They are the leaders that a teammate doesn’t want to let down; ‘Birdy’ the more fiery, explosive and emotive player and ‘Bails’ the steady, take no short cuts style professional who leads the training drills and is always talking up effort and consistency on the practice field.
Birdy’ will play his 200th NRL match, a milestone that was 14 years in the making after debuting for Cronulla in round 7, 2002, just over two months after his 18th birthday. He had been captain of the Australian Schoolboys the previous year that included Titans teammate Brad Tighe, and a year earlier was in the Newcastle Knights’ winning Harold Matthews (under-16 team).
He felt he was ready for professional football in his first year out of school however the Knights weren’t in a position to accommodate him so the Maitland-raised prodigious talent left for seaside at Cronulla to play under coach Chris Anderson at Cronulla. After six rounds in the lower grades he became a first grader. What he remembers most about that event is centre Nigel Vagana steamrolling him for a try close to the line in the Bulldogs’ victory.
It has been a long and eventful road since then that has included NRL 106 games for the Sharks and 93 for the Titans, controversies, a season with Perpignan-based Catalans Dragons in 2009 and Bird establishing himself as an automatic selection for NSW and Australia.
And while cricketers talk about the nervous 90s on the way to a century or nervous-190s for the double, Bird certainly had his moments after starting 2014 on 184 NRL games but a combination of two suspensions, injury and State of Origin commitments seeing him take to round 24 to make it.
“It has taken me a while,” he smiled. “I wouldn’t have got there a bit sooner if I hadn’t been suspended and had a year in Super League; everything has happened in the 200 games.”
Feeling he had been shunned by the Knights was an early motivator but in recent years it has been more about securing respect, consistency and finding contentment in the NRL and life on the Gold Coast where a more content Greg Bird has become co-captain with Nate Myles and is often seen in the community as a person of generosity with his time given to fans and an accommodating nature.
He won his first Origin series this season after debuting in 2006 and winning man of the match awards (at five-eighth) in his second and third games for the Blues. But playing finals football, an experience that has been too sparse for him, and winning a premiership are what drives him.
“I still have high hopes of this club moving forward, and definitely next year,” he said. “It has been a tough couple of years and I know this side can match it with the best teams but we are not doing it week in week out. Hopefully with some new faces next year we can play regular finals football.”
Bird’s description of Bailey, who enters his 150th game for the Titans but 269th in the NRL, against his former club on Sunday, sums up his persona as well as anyone’s.
“He’s a leader in this team,” Bird said. “While Nate and I have the captaincy, we look up to him; he has been a leader before he’s came here.
“He’s playing the same football as he was when he was playing for NSW and that’s a credit to him. You talk about preparation and professionalism there is no better than him.”
Bailey’s first match as a Titan was also against the Dragons, in round one 2007 at Suncorp Stadium, with the only other surviving foundation Titan Mark Minichiello by his side. They have been close mates ever since.
Bailey was a regular NSW player and had played and had three Tests when he surprised his manager Allan Gainey when he said he was ready to knock back a three-year deal with the Dragons and pack up his young family and leave for the Gold Coast for a five-year deal on the same money.
“I pretty much chased them [the Titans], I heard they were coming into the competition and talked to my manager and said I was ready for a new challenge and they [Michael Searle and John Cartwright] were at my house the next day,” bailey remembered.
“It was a quick decision and my manager couldn’t believe I wanted to pack up and move. I was pretty comfortable at St George Illawarra and playing some good footy but we [Bailey and wife Rebecca] wanted to have a crack on ourselves up here but still here eight years later and still loving it.
“Compared to Mini the milestone is a bit overdue, Mini’s up to 170, but it’s still a good achievement. I love the club and all it stands for so it’s good to get that number and especially against my old team.
“Mini is a great mate. Had a close bond since day one, it’s great to have those numbers and it will take a few years for others to reach it. I have learned a lot from Mini and his approach to the game and how professional and it has helped my game.”
Sunday’s return to Kogarah will certainly bring back memories of where the NRL journey began for Bailey way back in round one of 2000. He made his debut in the Olympic Stadium double header that then used to launch a season, in front of over 80,000 against Cronulla.
He came from Shellharbour and close mate from the club, Matt Cooper who was a year older, came through the ranks together and were having lunch when Cooper received a phone call from coach David Waite saying he’d been chosen to start 2000 in first grade. Cooper didn’t want to upset Bailey by disclosing his exciting news and played coy until two minutes later Bailey received the same news from Waite.
Cooper, who retired after last season, will be there to watch Bailey reach his milestone and marvels at how the prop has been able to navigate 15 seasons at the top and still be playing with similar energy and effect as he did more than a decade ago. Bailey puts that down to looking after his body, giving up his earlier quench for a regular ale and attitude to training that is legend amongst Titans players.
“I just try to get across to these guys not to waste their time,” he says of his influence with younger players. “I have played a long time and seen a lot of first graders who are content with playing first grade and forget about the hard stuff. Hopefully we’ll leave a legacy here when and Mini and I go but there are some good young blokes coming through with Nate and Birdy there to guide them.”