Sironen & Ingram fight for NRL contracts

One player has a famous name and a cousin who is one of the NRL’s brightest rising stars, the other was a hot teenage prospect who admits he went off the rails and did not play for almost two years.

The two former Melbourne Storm under-20 players are now part of a small group sweltering through the summer heat at The Southport School hoping to secure an NRL contract with the Titans.

Damien Sironen is no stranger to league fans on the Gold Coast and far NSW North Coast. The 22-year-old was signed by the Storm straight out of school and spent two years in Melbourne, playing alongside Tohu Harris and Ben Hampton.

Ironically he stayed in the same foster home as Jai Ingram, who went into the Cowboys system when in year 12 at school, while Neil Henry was head coach there, but was poached by the Storm on a rich three-year deal.  

Now, 23 next month, Ingram is determined to make the most of this unexpected second chance at an NRL career after having walked away from the game three years ago, his life more settled than ever before due to the positive influence of his wife Tess, who is due to have their first child by Christmas.

Ingram grew up on the Gold Coast before moving to the well-regarded league nursery of St Brendon’s at Yeppoon as a boarder. From there he was recruited to the Cowboys where he completed year 12 studies. He was snared by Melbourne on a three-year deal but suffered a right knee ACL injury early in the season and spent 14 months on the sideline. He admits during that period he had some off-field issues as he struggled to address a lonely period so far from home without being able to play league.

On return he was sent to their feeder club Easts in Brisbane season but was released and while trialling for the Bulldogs under-20s his left knee ACL went. Alone in Sydney with another season of rehabilitation ahead of him, he decided to head to Hervey Bay where his mother had moved to, and studied to become a qualified physical trainer and had decided to out rugby league behind him.

After meeting Tess he decided to give up drinking, put some real focus into his life and had never been happier. However his former Easts Brisbane coach Craig Ingebrigtsen contacted him and invited him to move to Brisbane and have one more crack at rugby league.

“I said no at first. I was sort of over it and walked away from the game for two years and was happy working,” Jai said. “But my wife and my mum said ‘why don’t you give it a good crack, you don’t want to be 30 and looking back with regret’.

“Tess has been a real blessing in my life. My problem before was that I liked to party and I created a loose name for myself but when I met Tess she turned me around and I hardly drink anymore.”

In his debut for the Tigers after making the run on side as a second-rower (he had alternated between back row and centre all his career) he suffered a shoulder injury and was out for 12 weeks. He returned in the FOGS Cup and after a month, unable to get back into a winning first grade side, he was granted a release to join Norths Devils where he went straight into their side and his end of season form was outstanding.

His manager sent a highlights reel to Neil Henry, who remembered Jai’s immense potential, and he gave him a train-and-trial contract. He has since worked hard in training and could be a wild-card player for the Titans if his enthusiasm is any guide.

“I realised I was given these opportunities and didn’t take them and I took it all for granted,” Ingram said. “If I didn’t meet Tess I wouldn’t be where I am in life at the moment, not only football-wise but with my head space. I suppose you meet people for a reason.

“But it’s up to me from here when it comes to footy, and I know I have to keep working hard.”

Sironen has learned also not to take anything for granted but never lost his determination to make it into the NRL despite a frustrating path. He also had two seasons with the Storm after signing straight out of school as a ball-playing front rower.

His father Rod Sironen, a Balmain lower grade prop who moved to Ballina in his 20s, is the older brother of Test legend Paul Sironen, whose son Curtis is making a name for himself with the Tigers and younger brother Bailey has joined Australian Schoolboys history as the third of the trio to play Australian Schoolboys (he is in the UK now).

After two seasons with the Storm, during which he played two NRL pre-season trials in his second year, Sironen was told he needed more time to develop as a prop and also headed to Easts Tigers and played in the FOGS Cup.

“I still knew I had what it took but it might take me a bit longer,” he said of the Storm’s view that he wouldn’t mature until he was well into his 20s.

“I didn’t really take it that badly, I had a good outlook on it because I knew I was off the pace and knew I wasn’t going to keep up with the likes of Jesse Bromwich, Brian Norrie and other props down there. I was happy to come up here and work on my game.”

In 2014 he joined Tweed Seagulls after being contacted by coach Aaron Zimmerle and was one of their best and most consistent performers as they made it to the finals. His form gave him the opportunity to trial for a contract with the Tigers.

Sironen, who is close to cousin Curtis and inspired by his progress, know it is his speed and agility that he has to work on to make it in the NRL. The 114kg prop has given up his job as a carpenter working for his builder-father to give it a real go in the seven weeks of training before Christmas when his progress will be accessed by the club.

“I have to work on my speed, the speed of the game is what people say is a big shock to the system,” he said. “Under 20s is super quick but not as physical but the NRL is fats and physical.

“But now I’m 22 and after a season in Q Cup behind me I feel I have taken the right steps to the NRL as a front rower. It is more like an apprenticeship rather than a halfback who can sort of roll in as an 18 year old and keep up with the rest of them.”

Not a football is kicked in the months of November until the Auckland Nines on January 31 as the players toil away far from the big stadiums and the masses of fans. Yet they are the gruelling, private weeks that can make or break careers.

Sironen and Ingram are part of scores of young men trying to impress NRL clubs during this period and convince them to give them a contract and provide their great opening in rugby league. And there are several more at the Titans in the same situation.

And, as the pair have found, opportunity can knock more than once in life.