NRL’s strangest career detour
My last NRL game, for now at least, was St George Illawarra vs South Sydney at the SCG, on August 4, 2017. Despite getting a rep jumper for NSW City earlier in the year, it was my only Dragons game for that season.
I was on the outer with my junior club. I didn’t take it well. I was bitter. And I did something.
Two months later, I was training with a rugby union team in Romania, the famous SCG clocktower replaced by dodgy sheds, hallowed turf turned to frozen paddock, Sydney’s sun traded for -10 Celsius.
Here’s how I ended up there.
MY DRAGONS DREAM
My dad, Michael Marketo, played about 50 first-grade games at Balmain during the ‘80s. He was captain of the reserve grade team and I think they won one or two comps.
He left there after ’87 and moved down to Wollongong. He doesn’t talk about footy much. From what his mates who played with him say, he was a straight talker and a tough player in his own right.
He stopped playing footy a couple of years before I was born. I love watching footy games and, when I was older, it was good to eventually see tapes of a couple of games dad played in.
I grew up in Wollongong, from birth to age six or seven. I loved it down there. Then we moved to Sydney at West Ryde, then my parents split up when I was 12 and I ended up moving to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
I was still up there when I was signed by the Dragons at age 16 to play SG Ball. I’d asked my manager to send a video of me playing in a couple of games to Craig Young, their recruitment guy. I’d always wanted to play for Illawarra, having grown up watching guys like Dean Schifilliti, Paul McGregor, Rod Wishart, Craig Teitzel, John Simon and my favourite player, Trent Barrett. By now, though, the Steelers had merged with St George and luckily enough, I got to play for the Dragons.
I got my first-grade debut in 2010. I remember the team then was stacked with rep players – they were winning the comp. One day, Wayne Bennett came and spoke to myself, Kyle Stanley and Kalifa Fai Fai Loa, and we debuted in the same game at WIN Stadium. It was a special moment, making my debut in the place I was born and grew up in. We got done by the Raiders but I’ll never forget it.
That was some side. I got to play with blokes like Mark Gasnier, Nathan Fien, Ben Hornby, Dean Young, Ben Creagh, who I look up to. You train with them, get smashed by them, then when you gain your stripes, you become their mate. It’s something I hold proud, just being around those guys.
I played a couple of games in that 2010 season, just when there was an injury or whatever. It was my first year out of under-20s and I just enjoyed being there – didn’t train overly hard. Just being young.
Grand final day was amazing, even though I wasn’t a big part of it. I’ll never forget seeing the relief of winning the Dragons’ first premiership for 31 years – and of course, the first for Illawarra and the joint venture.
I was on the outer with my junior club. I didn’t take it well. Two months later, I was training with a rugby union team in Romania.
As it turned out, I didn’t play much the next couple of seasons and was let go at the end of 2012. I was being young and silly. I needed to pull my head in, change my attitude. I did that while spending 2013-14 up at the Redcliffe Dolphins. But I wanted to go home again.
I pleaded my case with Paul McGregor, who I’d played for at the Illawarra Cutters and who had just taken over from Steve Price. He gave me a train-and-trial contract. I came back, busted my ring – Mary saw that. They threw a Dragons contract my way for 2015, we made the finals and I secured contracts for 2016-17.
Being part of two seasons in the main show was pretty cool. I was playing consistent footy while the club was going through a rebuilding stage. I earned the boys’ trust after my time away. The coaching staff’s trust too. People need to be able to trust you to go out and play well. I didn’t let anyone down and I kept my jersey most weeks across the two years.
Then came my review at the end of 2016. At age 27, I was told there was a lot of young players coming through. Their managers wanted to know what sort of pathway was there. I was the unlucky bugger that had to make way for them. I didn’t take it that well. I was disheartened. That’s footy.
I still ticked all my boxes, had a good pre-season. But it became real when I wasn’t picked in the Charity Shield squad – the top 23 or 24 players they wanted a look at. I’d always played that game. I was like, ‘Oh – what they said was true’. I played hard in reserves but pushed my way into the first-grade side for just one game that season, against the Rabbitohs – and didn’t get much time.
Unusually, while I wasn’t playing for the Dragons, Brad Fittler picked me for a City Origin spot. It was pretty cool to be involved in that week, being around Freddy.
The Dragons made up their mind and stuck to it. Whatever I did, it didn’t matter. The boys that got their crack did well. Fair enough. But the hardest thing was when I knew I was playing well enough to play NRL, to go in and do a job, yet getting overlooked every week. You’re busting your ring – for what? You’re at a footy club to play first-grade. Other people are saying things like, ‘You should be in the team’. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to cop it on the chin.
I was pretty bitter with the whole situation. I felt bitter at the Dragons. But I later realised that was a selfish way to look at things. I’m not the first bloke it’s happened to and I won’t be the last. I’ve let go of how I was treated. I’ve reflected on it now and moved past it. It is what it is.
Since the start of this season, I’ve been so happy that the club I was part of for so long is going so well. The boys look like they’re enjoying their footy, as are the fans. I still keep in touch with a lot of the players a couple of times a week. A lot of them are getting their names thrown around for rep footy and they deserve it.
I got to live out my dream. I got to play footy for the St George Illawarra Dragons. I’m happy that my old teammates are doing well. I love the club. I’ll never stop loving the club. There was just a little eight-month thing I had to go through. It’s made me a better person and a stronger character.
Well I got to do what I always wanted to do since I was a boy….. play first grade for the mighty dragons. I got to play and train with some of the best players in the world since I was 18, I got to get coached by the best coach of all time in Wayne Bennett, also got 51 games of grade under my belt in the red V and a city rep jersey. Pretty cool shit. It’s a privilege to play footy for a living and something I took for granted when I was young. When ever I played if it was in Grade or Reggie’s I just wanted my team mates to know I was there to never let them down and I hope I achieved that. To my team mates I loved pestering you hiding your things playing songs you all hated really loud neck slapping you body ripping you but most of all besides playing, being on the roller coaster after a loss or singing the song after a win and being in the trenches with you was the bonding sessions and time spent with youse. Memories is what life is about and I got a shitload of them. To the fans negative or positive you care about the club so much and that’s the best thing about you guys. All I can say is stick by the boys. I never wanted to leave this great club it’s been my home for just over a decade but the reality of the situation was I was unwanted and that’s the thing that hurts the most, but life goes on and everything happens for a reason. On a new journey now and looking forward to playing a different sport on the other side of the world. Life’s cool….. Up the dragons ✊🏼✊🏼✊🏼✊🏼
NEXT STOP, ROMANIAN RUGBY
I was all over the shop late last year and just wanted to get away. I doubted myself and whether I could still play at the top level in rugby league.
So … Romanian rugby.
Steve Roach’s son Liam is my best mate. His brother Dan had scored a job doing some coaching with a club called Timișoara Saracens. He gave me a call and told me that I could try my hand at union.
I thought, why not? Go over there, play rugby, save some dough, finish the season as the European summer begins and then go travelling. That was the plan. But it didn’t eventuate.
The first couple of weeks were good. I arrived in October, we were just training, I couldn’t play until December.
Then I found out people hadn’t been getting paid for the past couple of months. I started worrying if it was going to be like that the whole season. I didn’t want that hanging over my head.
Sure enough, the first time that pay was meant to come around, nothing. Just excuses. By the end of it, I just said, ‘Can I have my month’s wages and I’ll leave?’ I didn’t want to be over the other side of the world, stuck there and not getting paid.
In the end, they were at least good enough to fly me home and give me my month’s pay.
I felt bitter at the Dragons. But I later realised that was a selfish way to look at things.
It’s a long way from the NRL. They make sure all their players get paid. This was something I’d never experienced. I think things have since been looked after – they’re winning a lot of games anyway.
The town – very different to Australia! We were staying in a nice little unit, pretty modern. Other parts, you see homeless people laying in the street when the temperature’s way below zero. There’s wild dogs roaming around. It’s a different place.
I remember training in -10 degrees one day, wind and rain. The ground was like running on concrete with studs on, frozen solid, not inviting at all. At least the training gear they gave us kept us warm. The sheds weren’t too good. Not ideal.
Despite being a forward in league, I was training in the backs and there were heaps of Kiwis and Islanders over there in the backline, so we could speak English. Some were under-20s league players. The guys speaking the local language, I had no idea what they were saying. There were some big men playing in their forwards, too, so I stayed out of their way!
Food-wise, they ate a lot of meat – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Didn’t mind it! Though when I came back I didn’t eat meat quite so much.
By the time things came to a head there, I wanted to get home. I was drained. I’d hit the wall. I got to spend Christmas and New Year’s back in Australia.
Then, it was back to rugby league.
Well besides myself and @roachdaniel87 being heavily under dressed for the restaurant I’ve found my new favourite spot and just need to find a pretty European girl to bring here. Ps to all my old team mates who are going to spray me in the comments bring it your all cats. ✊🏼✊🏼✊🏼✊🏼✊🏼#seafoodisthegrouse
I WANT ANOTHER SHOT
At the end of 2017, I was just like: ‘Thank God, that year is over’. That’s how I felt at the time but it’s totally different now.
The Mendi Blackhawks and their coach, Kristian Woolf, threw me a bone. I love playing footy and they gave me the chance to keep doing it. The Blackhawks have never won a premiership. I haven’t won one since under-12s! Hopefully we can break that drought.
And hopefully I can get back into an NRL system again, if not this year then next year.
I’ve been doing NRL development work with the Cowboys since I got up here. It’s perfect – they’d had a spot just open up when I arrived and I fell into it. I love it. I love footy, so to be able to teach kids the game is the next best thing to getting paid to play.
You’ve just got to be careful of the big trucks and kangaroos! Once you get driving out of Townsville, travelling to schools, it can be a couple of hours to get anywhere for a clinic.
I also do a morning shift at the sports club, getting the club ready – set the pokies up, get the greens ready, mow the lawns, the usual stuff. I love it in Townsville. The people are great.
No one’s said anything to me about a potential shot with the Cowboys. I still think I’ve got it in me to play first-grade, if given an opportunity. But that’s up to the NRL clubs and the scouts. As long as I’m playing well, anything can happen.
I’m proud of what I’ve done – a lot of guys never get to play 50 NRL games. But hopefully I can add to them yet.