Farewell to a favourite son

Ben Creagh may not have got his dream end­ing but he cer­tainly had the dream ca­reer BY JOE Mc­DONOUGH

Rugby League Week - - News -

SHANE WEBCKE HELD THE Provan-Sum­mons Tro­phy high above his head in 2006, the last time he ever wore studs. Steve Men­zies topped that, scor­ing a try in Manly’s 40-0 grand fi­nal romp of the Storm be­fore sail­ing off into the NRL sun­set in 2008 after 349 matches. Our game is lit­tered with feel­good farewells, but for some, the stars just don’t align.

Stand­ing in the bow­els of Kog­a­rah Oval, where he’s fronted up to count­less press con­fer­ences as club cap­tain of the St Ge­orge Illawarra Drag­ons, Ben Creagh is one of those. When RLW catches up with the cham­pion back-rower, he’s just walked through a guard of hon­our and waved good­bye to the Red V faith­ful. A spe­cial mo­ment for the Wol­lon­gong prod­uct, ab­so­lutely – but it didn’t all go ac­cord­ing to plan.

In the week lead­ing up to the round 26 fix­ture, to ev­ery­one’s sur­prise, Paul McGre­gor in­cluded Creagh in his line-up.

It’d been a frus­trat­ing sea­son, to say the least, for the for­mer Kan­ga­roo and NSW Blue, with his busted knee keep­ing him on the side­lines since round three, and even­tu­ally forc­ing his early re­tire­ment call. But hav­ing his name right there on the Tues­day team list, and the big ‘C’ in brack­ets printed next to it was as close as he’d come to a farewell be­fit­ting his con­tri­bu­tion to the club.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans . . . and Creagh had to make the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion not to play against the Knights. “I was pretty close [to be­ing right] but not close enough to com­pete at a first-grade level,” he says with more than a tinge of dis­ap­point­ment.

“If I did play – and a lot of guys wanted me to – it would’ve been a to­ken game and when you play for this amount of time you don’t want to just run out on the field and strug­gle out there.

“I couldn’t keep up at train­ing with the boys and that means I wouldn’t have been able to keep up in the game – so it was the right de­ci­sion to make.”

Creagh’s body be­trayed him just three games shy of Ben Hornby’s

“I know a lot of the Drag­ons fans per­son­ally be­cause I see them every week”

273-game club record, but the 31-year-old isn’t bit­ter. After all, as he re­veals, his NRL ca­reer could’ve been over be­fore it even got go­ing.

“I was just speak­ing with Nathan Brown be­fore – he ac­tu­ally picked me for my first first-grade game here against the War­riors in 2003 and it wasn’t the best de­but, it really wasn’t,” he re­flects.

“Browny told me a few years after that he was get­ting let­ters after my first five games from the fans say­ing ‘Why are you still pick­ing this kid?’ – but he had plenty of faith in me and said, ‘Look, give this guy some time, he’s got to learn from his mis­takes’, and I was mak­ing plenty at the time.

“It was tough. I was an 18-yearold kid who’d gone from play­ing 20s to re­serve grade, and then all of a sud­den I got the call-up to first grade all in the same year. At the time I was a full-time land­scape gar­dener in Wol­lon­gong, trav­el­ling up to train­ing in the af­ter­noons after work, so it was a shock to the sys­tem. And then putting your­self on the big stage where you’re get­ting judged on your per­for­mances every week when you’re not go­ing very good – it’s tough to take as a kid.

“But that’s the only way you learn and be­come a bet­ter player, by the mis­takes you make and ex­pe­ri­ences you go through. So I guess that pe­riod really tough­ened me up.”

Of course, he went on to prove Brown right – rep­re­sent­ing Aus­tralia twice, NSW 11 times and NSW Coun­try six times. In 2010, he helped the Drag­ons to their first pre­mier­ship win as a joint ven­ture.

Does he think he’ll still be pinch­ing him­self in 20 years’ time?

“I really think I will. Only in these last two weeks since I an­nounced my re­tire­ment, when you see videos that peo­ple put to­gether of dif­fer­ent high­lights and dif­fer­ent things you’ve done, a lot of really good mem­o­ries

start com­ing back. For­mer play­ers you’ve played with and ex-coaches start mes­sag­ing you, wish­ing you their best, and you start to re­alise that you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of things and I had a great time do­ing it.

“Ob­vi­ously high­lights were play­ing for Aus­tralia and NSW – they were dreams of mine as a kid to play at that level. I made my first Kan­ga­roo tour in 2005 when I was only 20 years old. It came very quickly. And then I played my first NSW game in 2009 and, wow, what a spe­cial mo­ment that was for me.

“It was six years after I made my de­but in first grade and I’d worked so hard to get to that point and to play my first game for NSW down in Mel­bourne was very spe­cial.

“It was a tough Ori­gin ca­reer for me due to re­sults and some­times per­sonal per­for­mances on the field which weren’t up to scratch at that level, but I really did put my best foot for­ward and I had a lot of good mem­o­ries from Ori­gin as well.”

Once lam­basted by the Red V army, he now re­tires as a favourite son – and Creagh in­sists the re­spect is mu­tual.

“The Drag­ons fans are a very spe­cial group of peo­ple,” he tells RLW. “I know a lot of them per­son­ally be­cause I see them every week at the games. They are there in big num­bers when­ever we travel, and have sup­ported me through good games, bad games, all through my ca­reer, and that’s im­por­tant as a player, when you give ev­ery­thing to a club and you train so hard and you want to play for the fans, it’s im­por­tant they re­spect you and know that you’re giv­ing your best. They’ve been great.”

EXIT THE DRAGON Ben Creagh’s re­tire­ment means Ja­son Nightin­gale is the only mem­ber of the Drag­ons’ 2010 pre­mier­ship­win­ning team still at the club.

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