Ben Creagh is living proof that 12 months can be a lifetime in rugby league.
Dumped from the New South Wales State of Origin squad last June after the Blues were thrashed 34-6 in Game Two – conceding a fifth straight series loss in the process – Creagh found himself at a career crossroads as he battled a worrying form slump and the inner demons that inevitably come with such personal failures.
Yet less than a year later the St George Illawarra back-rower boasts a premiership, is a regular in the Australian Test side and is back in the Origin frame after earning a recall to coach Ricky Stuart’s revamped NSW squad for next Wednesday’s 2011 series opener.
“I’m really excited to be back,” Creagh told NRL.com this week as he opened up about his struggles of 12 months ago. “It was a tough series last year being dropped for the third game. It was really disappointing personally to play like that and miss out on that jumper again.
“I knew I wasn’t playing well at the time. I wasn’t playing well at club level and I didn’t play well in the Origin matches either. Even from the start of the season – my trial matches and the whole pre-season – I just didn’t prepare well and wasn’t playing well. I wasn’t playing with any confidence.
“I had to go back and work on a few little things that I knew if I did well that I would play well. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since and it’s what I’ll do for the rest of my career now. It was a big learning curve and I wish it didn’t have to happen that way but sometimes you have to experience those things to get better.”
Now well and truly back to his best in a Dragons side that is again setting the pace this season, Creagh puts his stunning form reversal down to a greater focus on mixing up his game after he was criticised for lacking impact for the Blues last year.
Already in 2011 he has notched a team-high 24 offloads (third in the NRL) and sits behind only Mark Gasnier for most line-break assists with four.
“I started by trying to work on speeding up my play-the-balls and mixing up my lines a lot more rather than the stock-standard running straight into blokes. That’s what I’ve been working on the whole pre-season,” he said.
“I’ve been working on my pass and offload as well to bring that into my game. I just want to mix things up and try not to be so one-dimensional. I want to continue my learning. I love playing but I want to add a few more things that I can look forward to going out and doing each week. So far it’s been going alright and touch wood it can keep going.
“I’ve worked extremely hard to get myself back here and now I’ve got to work hard again this week to play well next Wednesday.”
Creagh is one of seven Dragons named in the NSW squad for Game One (alongside Brett Morris, Mark Gasnier, Beau Scott and debutantes Jamie Soward, Dean Young and Trent Merrin) as Stuart looks to capitalise on the lethal combinations the premiers have developed over the past three seasons.
Asked if he thought his Origin career might have been in jeopardy after his dumping 12 months ago, the 26-year-old said: “I always hoped not. I’m not in my 30s and at the back end of my career. I’m still only young, I still have a lot of improvement in me and I still have a lot to offer.
“I think I’ve learnt a lot, too. The past two years I’ve been involved in this NSW side, I’ve been in the Test team and even playing in the finals last year – all of that counts over the years.
“Experience, knowledge and learning off other coaches has been great for me and then to win a grand final as well – especially when you’ve been trying for so many years – that gives you confidence as a footy side and as a player too.”
Creagh said he was excited by the prospect of being part of the new Blues structure over the coming years.
“We’ve only been here (in camp) a little while but there is a lot of new staff and everyone seems pretty upbeat. I’m excited too. I’m looking forward to the camp, I’m looking forward to the preparation for the game.
“Every coach has their different ways of training and how they prepare. I’ve never been coached by Ricky and a lot of the guys here haven’t either so there is a bit of the unknown there.
“I know what the game will be like but not what the week will be like. From what I’ve heard, from what has been installed this year, it sounds exciting.”