Wins were few and far between but Titans forward Ashley Harrison insists three years at the Rabbitohs helped to shape his career. Credit: Col Whelan. Copyright: NRL Photos
There were two wooden spoons in three seasons, a total of just 17 wins from 66 games and some of the worst hidings the club had ever experienced but Ashley Harrison has credited his stint at South Sydney with shaping his 15-year NRL career.
Now in his seventh season with the Titans, Harrison faces up to his former team on Saturday night as he prepares to draw the curtain on a decade and a half at the highest level that began as an 18-year-old with the Broncos in 2000.
While many would consider a move from a premiership-winning force to a club still picking up the pieces after being dumped from the competition for two years career suicide, Harrison insists that the added responsibility that resulted from the move made him appreciate what it meant to be a first-grader.
Offered a down-graded contract with the Broncos at the end of the 2002 season, Harrison's hand was forced somewhat by financial pressures but he has fond memories of helping to rebuild the proud club.
"As a kid coming through at the Broncos system, with so many internationals in the team, my contract got reduced and I'd just bought my first property and just couldn't live on what they offered me," Harrison told NRL.com ahead of his 275th first grade game.
"Souths came in with a good deal at the time and I thought it was a great opportunity to move away from home and find myself and it was one of the best things I ever did.
"The footy wasn't great – we didn't make finals footy or anything like that – but in terms of finding yourself and learning what it takes to become a consistent first-grader and paving your own way, it was great in that regard.
"They were a club that was only second year back in the competition so obviously they were building their club again and I fully understood that but in saying that every year it got better and better and then when Russell [Crowe] got on board it obviously took off from there.
"In terms of life lessons, I went down there at 21, my wife went down there with me and it was a really big learning curve. I had to grow up a lot quicker than I thought I probably would have if I'd been at home in 'Brissy'."
Over the course of three seasons at South Sydney Harrison played under three different coaches – Paul Langmack, Arthur Kitinas and Shaun McRae – and such was the regard for which he was held that he captained the side three weeks before his 23rd birthday.
When he arrived at Redfern for the 2003 pre-season he was training alongside players such as Ahmad Bajouri, Damon Alley-Tovio, Wise Kativerata, Brien Siemsen and Danny McAllister and they managed just three wins all year, two of which were against the Wests Tigers.
Although he had announced he was moving to bitter arch rivals Sydney Roosters for the following two seasons, Harrison helped to drag the club from the bottom of the ladder in 2005 with a late flurry of six victories in his last eight games in red and green, including a 17-16 win over the Roosters.
"Through that era the Roosters were so dominant and because of the rivalry between the two teams, it was a big occasion for us and definitely one that sticks out," the 32-year-old said of his most memorable win as a Rabbitoh.
"The bunch of guys that were there pretty much stuck together for the three years that I was there. I met some great people down there and still have some really good mates. We were a really tight-knit group and it was definitely a good time in my footy career."
With retirement and the next phase of his life now a matter of months away, Harrison is taking nothing for granted as the high-flying Titans prepare to have their premiership credentials put to the test by South Sydney.
With a clash against the Broncos awaiting them in six days time, Harrison concedes that with the weight of the decision lifted from his shoulders he is charging into each and every game as if it could be his last.
"It's like anything, when you know there's an end point you just go out and rip in because you never know when it could be all over," said the 15-game Origin veteran. "It could be over next week, you just don't know, and I've always been the type of bloke never to end anything with any regrets and that's the same with this year.
"The main thing was to finish playing good footy. You don't want to end your career out the back-door of the club, journos writing stuff that you should retire and that type of stuff and because I've had to put so much into my footy over the years I thought I was due for a fresh challenge.
"I knew I had enough petrol in the tank to give this season 100 per cent but beyond that I probably would have been kidding myself and I'd be a bit half-arsed.
"I owed the club enough to be able to tell them that and try and find someone else who could give them 100 per cent."
As for what lies ahead in 2015 and beyond, Harrison has one particular wish that 15 winters playing rugby league has made impossible to come true.
"I've never had a chance to go skiing before so that's something I'm looking forward to doing," he said.
"We're fortunate for the opportunities we've been given and I owe rugby league pretty much everything because it's given me pretty much everything."