Unlikely hero ... among many
He was the least experienced player on the field yesterday, and the most unlikely to be there, but the story of Caleb Binge typifies the iSelect Titans season-ending victory against the Bulldogs that is far more incredible than even those high-fiving fans in the crowd would have considered.
Sure, the Titans were down 18-0 with no less than 18 players in the first and second-tier NRL squad missing. And – after winning just two of the previous 15 games and crossing for just one try in two and a half matches – had nothing more to play for than pride, regaining some face in from of the victory-starved home crowd and to give departing heroes Mark Minichiello, Luke Bailey and Ashley Harrison a worthy last memory.
Yet beneath that is the true story of the courage and willpower of a busted outfit that had one of the greatest falls from grace any team has seen – from first to 14th in 17 rounds – but founds something in their last, most desperate, effort of 2014.
Binge, the 21-year-old who was called back into action for just his second NRL game a month before he should have, was the greatest example.
But he wasn’t alone.
Consider this. When Luke Bailey was ruled out when scans showed he would risk life in a wheelchair if he had one bad impact on his neck, the Titans had not one fit forward in their squad to call on.
The day before Maurice Blair injured his calf in the gym. Greg Bird had incredibly been suspended for a rather innocuous lifting tackle against the Warriors.
That stretched the absentee list to this: Forwards – Binge, Bird, Bailey, Harrison, Nate Myles, Luke Douglas, Matt Srama, Ben Ridge, Ryan James, Cody Nelson and Siuatonga Likiliki; backs – Blair, Albert Kelly, Kevin Gordon, Beau Henry, Brad Tighe, Jamie Dowling and Matt Beddow.
That’s right, 18 players and well over 60 per cent of the salary cap out of action. The only able players not on the field yesterday were Jamal Fogarty and Sam Irwin who played for Seagulls in their semi-final against Ipswich – both backs.
Caleb Binge walked into Titans HQ on Thursday as Greg Condon was breaking the news to Luke Bailey that he had to speak with the specialist next day but the scans on his neck was not promising.
Binge was not scheduled to play again in 2014, in fact was not likely to be fit enough to run fully for at least a fortnight. If the season continued it was a month before he should have played.
He’d worn the brace 24 hours a day and done all the little extras to give him some chance of maybe playing for Tweed Head Seagulls if they continued through the finals.
Condon asked would he consider playing against the Dogs. Binge looked at the disappointment forming on Bailey’s face and said: “If you need me, I’ll play.”
Next day he did an impromptu fitness test in the gym with full-season absentee Jamie Dowling and strength and conditioning coach Dan Ferris running at him for tackling practice and Binge running into their tackles. Condon ruled that if he could get through Saturday morning’s session, he could play.
Binge was a late starter to the season after shoulder surgery. The next day after his NRL debut against Melbourne, he suffered medial ligament damage playing for Seagulls. In his return match six weeks later, a minute before full-time, he was hit from the side and suffered PCL and MCL damage. That was four weeks to the day of the Bulldogs clash.
If he did not get through Saturday’s session, under-20s second-rower Anthony Colman would have made his NRL debut against one of the meanest packs in the game.
“It’s a bit surreal to get an opportunity to play,” said an exuberant Binge after yesterday’s victory. “The first thing that came to mind was that if I get an opportunity I want to do it in a good way. One of the blokes who has been such an influence on me is Luke Bailey and it was meant to be his spot but he couldn’t play his last game and that would have devastated him.
“I had to try to play to his standard because I didn’t want to let him down, not him of all people.
“There is no better feeling than this now. It couldn’t have gone better, and to win it in extra-time and be on the field when Zilly kicked the field goal – it was incredible.
“I was told during the week I’d get about 25 minutes and was happy with that. But Woolfy [under-20s coach Ben Woolf, who was sideline on the other end to the two-way, running instructions to Neil Henry) looked around near the end and said ‘we have no one else, only Bingey’.”
As Tom Kingston limped off when he suffered medial ligament damage in the last seconds of regular time, Binge headed back out for extra-time.
If you look closely, after a wholehearted effort that gave him 170 metres from 17 runs, he ran the block that gave William Zillman time to pot the winning field goal.
“I looked around and saw the ball was on his foot, then I turned and looked at it sail between the posts,” he smiled with satisfaction.
“The feeling was something like I’ve never felt before.”
But the tales of courage go beyond Caleb Binge.
Dave Taylor, with a torn tendon in his calf, wasn’t due to even run for a fortnight but made himself available. He was below his best but gave an enormous effort.
Paul Carter had been carrying a shoulder injury that requires surgery within days but had battled on for a month because, simply, there was no one else to take his place.
He suffered a bnad gash to his head in the first half but went back out before medial ligament damage ended his day, forcing the Titans to have 15 players standing when they went into extra-trime.
Brad Takairangi also had a shoulder injury that could have sidelined him, but had to cover the back row because there was no other. Winger-centre Steve Michaels was playing back row off the bench. Out of six props at season’s start, Mark Ioane – who had a superb game – and Matthew White were all that remained.
Perhaps the bravest and most resilient Titan, little hooker Beau Falloon, had been carrying a crook back but refused to surrender. He suffered a badly bruised knee cap in the first half and will have x-rays to check there is no fracture, but he went back into the fray in the second half.
David Mead and Aidan Sezer went off concussed but threw themselves back into the action. Sezer’s return was delayed when Kingston went off but he and just run back into the attacking line when Zillman coolly landed the winner.
If the Titans had a match next week they would not have enough fit players from the full-time squad to field a team. Bird would have returned but Falloon, Kingston and Carter were no chance of playing.
That’s why Mark Minichiello, an inspirational figure in his last Titans game and appropriately man of the match, left the stadium in the dark so damn proud.
“It's hard to put into words. It was a big effort to come back from 18-0 down and very proud of the boys tonight,” he said.
“They dug really deep to give us departing players a great victory and something that I’ll always remember.”
It was a tough season. Many fans lost patience, and faith. And Zillman, who works harder than other Titan, copped the brunt of some of their dissatisfaction.
Their last memory of him was as a hero with a left-boot.
And as Minichiello’s NRL career finishes after 273 games, Binge will next season run out for his third.
Luke Bailey will watch him closely, comforted by the absolute fact that ‘Bingey’ met his pledge on Sunday … he never let the old Bull down.