Andrew McCullough has made more tackles than any other current NRL player but Dragons captain Ben Hunt says the greatest attribute of the first graduate from the under 20s NYC to achieve the 300-game milestone is helping teammates to play better.
McCullough and Hunt have played together since they were 12 years-old and both were members of the Broncos team that won the inaugural NYC in 2008 under the coaching of St George Illawarra mentor Anthony Griffin.
When Griffin took charge of the Dragons last season he recognised that Hunt was struggling for a myriad of reasons, so he bought in a familiar face to help.
The move has coincided with Hunt producing the best and most consistent form of his career and the star playmaker credited McCullough for helping him on and off the field.
“We have obviously been mates for a long time and it has been 20 years since we first played footy together, so I guess we know each other’s games in-and-out and what makes each other tick,” Hunt said ahead of McCullough’s 300th NRL appearance against South Sydney on Thursday night.
“Macca has just always been someone I have found easy to talk to about life and about footy. He is like any good mate, he has always been there when you need someone to lean on.
“He just brings a lot of confidence to myself. We played a lot of footy together and he knows when I want the ball, and where I want it, so it made that part of my game a lot more clearer and easier.
“I have just gone about playing my footy and we are pretty close off the field as well. It helps when you are enjoying yourself and your families can hang out together. Little things like that make life a bit easier.”
If not for the presence of Cameron Smith, McCullough would almost certainly have played more than four State of Origins for Queensland and Griffin is just one of many who believed he was destined for a long and successful career from a young age.
McCullough was the first player born in the 1990s to play in the NRL when he debuted for the Broncos on May 17, 2008, and he was also the youngest player to reach the 200-game milestone in 2017.
“He always looked like a first grader and trained like a first grader, which is why he transitioned so well and so quickly in such a demanding position,” Griffin said.
Andrew is reliable, he is mentally tough, he has got great leadership about him.Dragons coach Anthony Griffin
Griffin said they were the qualities that prompted him to bring McCullough to the Dragons last season.
“It is why he is sitting here now, because he is resilient, dependable, he has got a great leadership quality about him so it was really important for our club to get someone like him.
“He has had to overcome a few challenges, but he has been a great example to our players.”
In 299 matches for the Broncos (260), Knights (8) and Dragons (31), McCullough has made 12,333 tackles at an average of 41.24 tackles per game.
He is one of just four specialist hookers among the 43 players to play 300 NRL matches, along with Cameron Smith, Luke Priddis and Robbie Farah.
“It is obviously a very physically demanding position to play, you are in there every week doing upwards of 40 tackles and usually on pretty big fellows so it is a credit to anyone who can play that long,” said Hunt, who plays hooker for the Maroons.
“From a young age when we first came into the Broncos system I can remember just how hard Macca trained, how professional he was and I think that is something that has stuck with him throughout his career.
“On and off the field he is extremely professional, a real team man, and it has always been a privilege to have him in your team because you know no matter how tough it is, he is never going to let you down.”
A knee reconstruction in 2017 appeared to be the beginning of a decline for McCullough and the Broncos released him to Newcastle in 2020 but he has revived his career under Griffin and has played 10 matches this season alongside Hunt and another 2008 NYC team-mate, Josh McGuire.
"In a weird way I think setbacks, certain injuries gave me a bit of perspective on the drive to come back, different things to overcome," he said on Wednesday.
"You can do that at certain points of your career and I certainly had to do that over the last couple of years with some pretty big injuries. Hindsight's a funny thing and [going to] Newcastle was probably the best thing for me. I got out of my comfort zone.
"There was a period there where I was flat-lining a little bit and the Broncos were making changes for whatever reason. That's the direction they wanted to go in at the that time, which is fair enough.
"I just went to the Knights with no pressure, went and enjoyed my football again and got outside my comfort zone and realised there's more to rugby league than being in the Broncos bubble as such.
It's pretty crazy to be here now sitting next to Ben and Hook how it all started 14 years ago. It's just a blessing to be in the team each week and you enjoy it for what it is. You never know where the finish-line is, I've just enjoyed it."
Match: Dragons v Rabbitohs
Round 15 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong