By Yibby Campbell
St George Illawarra Dragons captain Ben Creagh will make his 244th appearance in the Red V to become the all-time third most-capped first-grade player in Club history against the Penrith Panthers at WIN Stadium, Wollongong on Sunday.
The University of Wollongong junior equalled the previous record set by Club greats Jeff Hardy and Matt Cooper when he took to the field for the 243rd time last round and needs now to only surpass fellow Club legends Norm Provan (256) and Ben Hornby (273).
Given this key milestone, this week we caught up with Jeff Hardy to reflect upon his career and gain an insight into his life post rugby league.
Hardy was a highly consistent back-rower who grew up in the St George area and as such harboured a passion for football and aspirations to one day play for the famous ‘Red V’.
The local junior went on to play 243 first-grade games for the Dragons with 149 of those for St George (1991-98) and 84 for Illawarra (1985-89).
Hardy admitted that the thought of one day joining an elite list of players with his name forever etched in the history books was never even a part of his wildest dreams.
“I always hoped to play for the Dragons,” said Hardy.
“As a kid I would go and watch the games at Kogarah Oval and dream of playing out there one day.
“You never really think you’re going to make it but because I had a love for rugby league I just kept playing and playing and finally the chance came closer and closer and when I finally got to make it, it was definitely a dream come true.”
Besides this record and honour for all-time appearances, Hardy holds another special place in the history of the Club.
Hardy is accredited by his team-mates as reviving the team song, a tradition that continues to this day with the current Dragons players and something of which Hardy is immensely proud.
“I introduced singing the old song from the past eras and players ‘We are the St George Boys’ as well as “Oh When The Saints” to the squads during my time at the Dragons,” reflected Hardy.
“To sing ‘Oh When The Saints’ is an awesome experience with the boys”.
After 16 years off the paddock, Hardy reflects fondly on his career and his time at the Dragons reminiscing about the three Grand final births, his seasons at the Club, the life long friends and endless memories.
Although finding one favourite moment proved difficult, Hardy didn’t hesitate when asked what he missed the most about playing rugby league.
“Game day is a magical time, there’s no better day then game day,” said Hardy.
“It was an awesome chapter in my life as every time you put on the red and white jumper is a moment to be cherished.”
Since retirement Hardy has remained involved with Rugby League, coaching and mentoring at Endeavour Sports High School in the Sutherland Shire for the past 13 years.
Hardy plays a key role in the development of rugby league talent at this school and has an impressive list of former graduates such as Kyle and Chase Stanley, Cameron King, Justin Poore, Beau Champion, Joey Leilua, Dean Whare, Bryson Goodwin, Blake Ayshford and Alex Johnson to name just a few who have graduated from his tuition to NRL football.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to coach a lot of Dragons junior boys that come through and also kids that have gone on to play NRL at other clubs,” said Hardy who also coaches the Gymea Gorilla’s Under 16 team.
”I love watching careers develop and seeing how they progress with some even going on to play in the NRL, so there’s always an ongoing interest for me in rugby league.”
The Dragons in particular remain important to Hardy and he regularly watches their games and sees a bright future for the present roster.
”They’ve recruited well; they’ve got a good staff in place now and Marys doing well. Things are going really good,” said Hardy.
Hardy will be watching the Penrith game on Sunday and will be wishing Creagh all the best as the current skipper surpasses his “all-time” milestone.
“I wish Ben well, I’d love to see heaps of players stay loyal and rack up loads of games for the Dragons,” said Hardy.
“There’s not a lot of loyalty these days where people stay at one Club for their whole career, so full credit to Ben, I totally admire what he’s doing in rugby league and for the Dragons.
“I will never lose my love for the game or the Dragons; I cheer my team on every week and as I said before, there is no better day than game day and I know that Ben will do us all proud on Sunday”.