Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
Painful memories of inconsistency, immaturity and vulnerability – they're not the stock-standard words a sportswriter might use to introduce a positive feature article on a rugby league warhorse, but they're the thoughts and feelings swirling around Newcastle forward Neville Costigan's head and driving him forward in 2013.
You see, over the past half-dozen years or so – ever since the Broncos sacked him in 2006 – Costigan's road has been tough. And now, after fully contemplating his rugby league legacy and understanding how near the end of his career in Australia could be, he's determined to realise his full potential this season.
Off-contract at the end of the year, Costigan tells NRL.com he's determined to make the 2013 season his best.
"After the Broncos sacked me I grew up a fair bit, and even the past few years I reckon I've matured heaps," he tells NRL.com on the eve of the Knights clash with his former side Canberra on Sunday. "I don't drink as much, I don't party as much as I used to – I'm doing a lot more adult things."
Now a man who spends more time on the water than frequenting local watering holes, Costigan's found the best release from rugby league is with rod and reel. He's spent days chasing snapper in Batemans Bay with Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, long stints in large game boats on the Great Barrier Reef and now targets flathead and whiting on Kade Snowden's tinnie in Lake Macquarie. His rugby league journey has taken him fishing around the country – just don't call him a journeyman.
"I never wanted to be a journeyman. I loved the Broncos growing up and that's who I saw myself finishing my career with, but I was young then and I loved to socialise a fair bit and I was out drinking a fair bit and that didn't help me much because I got sacked for drink-driving."
Costigan, an 11-year NRL veteran now at his fourth club after stints at Brisbane, Canberra and St George Illawarra, believes his best football is still very much in front of him. It's just desperately obvious, though, that he needs to recapture his confidence first.
"Last year… it was probably one of the worst years I've had playing footy," Costigan admits. "[I was] inconsistent, I was just going with the flow… I love Newcastle and I want to stay here 'cause it's a great place but I haven't played my best footy up here.
"In 2012 I played one or two good games, then I played three not-so-good games. In 2011 I was injured but I was pretty happy with the year, but when Wayne [[Bennett] came I thought it was all going to happen for me. Like it was all going to fall into place and I didn't work as hard… I thought I was automatically going to play good footy 'cause he's such a good coach – but that didn't happen."
The PNG-born, Queensland-raised prop or second-rower, capable of changing the momentum of a match with a big hit or a powerful run, has enjoyed a colourful career since making his debut in 2003 – some periods pleasure and other parts pain.
Aside from his four-year stint at the Broncos, he's played two seasons in the nation's capital, won a title in two years with the Dragons, and came to Newcastle with high hopes in 2011. And he's played in the World Cup for PNG, too.
"When I went to Canberra, I loved the first year but after that I was missing home too much and it was pretty cold and I didn't like it much," Costigan admits.
"And Wayne gave me a chance to go to the Dragons… I always knew it was my fault at the Broncos and [Bennett] knew how much I hurt from that – it was pretty painful, especially in Brisbane and being so close to home. Going to the Raiders in 2007, I kind of turned my life around then. I still played good footy and played for Queensland and grew up a bit then, and that's why I think he offered me the chance… he knew I'd matured a bit and that's why he gave me another chance."
"He's the reason where I am today and I always thought that if I never went to the Broncos under him I never would have played NRL. He's been like a father figure to me off the field."
At his best when he's aggressive, Costigan played six games for Queensland in 2007 and 2009-10 – and he has been a part of a winning side on all but one occasion. He wants to be a part of another winning Maroons side this season after a two-year exodus, and he believes he can rekindle the level of play required to earn another Origin berth.
First step, though, is securing his spot in first grade. His long-term mentor and a man he calls a great friend is keeping the Mackay Wests Tigers junior on his toes.
"I'm confident but I'm not thinking that far," Costigan says. "When I came to Newcastle, I didn't start the year off too good and suffered an injury in the first game. That's when I fell away after that and when I came back Origin was sort of over for 2011. Last year I didn't play good at all – that's the whole reason I didn't make it. I'd love to play for Queensland again if I got the chance – I guess the ball's in my court."
In addition to securing a spot in the Knights line-up and reclaiming his Maroons jersey, Costigan's in a battle to secure another contract to remain at the Knights. After more than five years trying to establish a base he's happy to call home, Costigan, along with his girlfriend Stevie, want to remain in Newcastle.
"I got a wake-up call at the end of last year from Wayne when he said ‘If you [don't play better] we probably won't re-sign you'," Costigan, who cracked 150 NRL games at the end of last season, says.
"That's when I started to realise before pre-season… I want to play good footy and stay in Newcastle or somewhere else in Australia… that'd be the best thing for me.
"I turned 28 this year and hopefully I can play for a few more years… but I'd love to stay here, especially in Newcastle."
Now Costigan's career is at a crossroads. The direction of his playing future remains unclear, but he's determined to not let it affect his form this season. This time there are no excuses for a poor year – and there's every reason to look forward to the Knights' season that's just three games old. Costigan genuinely believes the new-look, better-equipped Knights have the strike power to cause significant damage in 2013.
"We've learned a lot last year, and I think we can go all the way this year. We've had a bit of a rocky start in Round 2 [against Manly] but we've rectified that," he says. "It's a long season but if we can keep doing our job week in and week out I think we'll go really close."
Their campaign continues at Hunter Stadium on Sunday night when they take on a Raiders side high on confidence after taking down the Dragons last week.
Having substituted at hooker for Danny Buderus in their 34-6 win over the Cowboys last Monday night Costigan reverts to his preferred role as impact player coming off the bench. He's aiming to match his involvement from Round 1 when he made 12 hit-ups for almost 100 running metres as well as 20 tackles in little more than half an hour on the field – although he hopes to get even more game time.
"At the Knights now, all the forwards didn't play good (in 2012) so Wayne went out and bought a bunch more. I'm just trying to cement my spot in the team now.
"I'm on the bench at the moment but that's not so bad for me – I don't mind coming on and providing the impact, and if the team goes good and I go good, I'll get more of a chance."