Greg Bird fends off current Titans teammate Luke Bailey in the first NRL game he ever won with the Sharks, the 2002 Semi-Final against St George Illawarra. Credit: Col Whelan. Copyright: NRL Photos
On the eve of his 200th NRL game more than 12 years since playing his first, Titans co-captain Greg Bird concedes that rejection as a teenager by the Newcastle Knights has driven him to achieve most of the highs on offer in rugby league.
A Test, Origin and Country representative throughout his career at Cronulla and now the Titans, Bird's path to a double century has been beset by injuries, suspensions and a 12-month stint with Catalans in the English Super League but he will finally bring up the milestone on Sunday at WIN Jubilee Oval against the Dragons.
Having played 106 games for the Sharks between 2002-2008, Bird has to date racked up 93 games for the Titans over the past five seasons but said that as a junior coming through with the Maitland Pumpkin Pickers, all he ever wanted to do was play first grade for the Knights.
A member of Newcastle's under-16 Harold Matthews team that won the title in 2000 and which boasted current Titans teammate Brad Tighe along with Bulldogs captain Michael Ennis, Bird captained the Australian Schoolboys in 2001 but when he went looking for an opportunity to step up to NRL he was forced out of the Hunter.
"I wanted to play at the Knights, played under-16s and under-18s there and asked for a contract and they didn't want me, wasn't good enough. I tried my hand in Sydney and went down to the Sharkies and the rest is history," said Bird.
"They just said I wasn't up to first grade level. I got the opportunity to go down as a top 25 player and went back to the Knights and they didn't think I was up to it at that stage. I'm not sure what their plans were in the future, I think they wanted me to stay and play under-20s but where I was then I was looking at the bigger picture and you have to do what everyone does at some stage in their career and move on and try something else.
"I got the opportunity to go into the top 25 [at Cronulla] under Chris Anderson and with Theo Burgess. It was probably still the old-school brand of football back then; it wasn't anything like the professional day-in day-out that it is these days. I'm very lucky to have played in two eras."
Bird had only celebrated his 18th birthday two months prior to his NRL debut in Round 7, 2002 where the Bulldogs – and Nigel Vagana in particularly – dished out some good old-fashioned 'welcome to first grade' treatment.
Although happy to be in the top grade, it took eight games and a stint in reserves before Bird tasted victory in the NRL, a 40-24 Semi-Final win over St George Illawarra that catapulted Cronulla into a Preliminary Final with the Warriors.
In his first run-on appearance, Bird was named at five-eighth in place of Matthew Johns but the Sharks would eventually fall short, going down 16-10, the first of just two occasions that Bird has come within a week of playing in a Grand Final.
In 12 seasons in the NRL Bird has only ever played in two finals series and why this year's State of Origin Series win with New South Wales holds such a special place in his career.
"That's probably the highlight of my career to be honest. I haven't had the luxury of playing a great deal of semi-final football or grand final victories so that's something I can hang my hat on so far," said the 30-year-old.
"I've still got high hopes of this club moving forward, definitely next year. It's been a rough couple of years and I know potentially this side can mix it with the good teams it's just doing it week in and week out and hopefully with a few fresh faces next year we can take that extra step and play some semi-final football because that's what every player wants to do.
"You get to first grade and you're sort of happy to be there and I guess you have that cruise period where you are just enjoying playing first grade week in and week out. It probably took me two or three years to figure out that I needed to up my game and start improving and then that's when the rep football scene sort of starts.
"When you get recognised in rep teams and your game improves as much to be selected in them that's when I think you're a first grade player."