During his days as a regular in the New South Wales State of Origin team, Brad Mackay saw his fair share of on-field fireworks, but nothing could prepare him for what his post-football career would bring.
Now working as a fireman at Sutherland, his days and nights remain every bit as action-packed as his time in the NRL and he doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked about his most harrowing experience on the job.
“We had a fire at Kogarah one night,” he recalls. “We were turning up to what they called a ‘backyard fire’ and when you have a backyard fire it’s usually just a barbecue alight, or a gas cylinder on fire… but this guy was in pyrotechnics – he was fully licensed but he did it out of his home. It wasn’t long before New Year’s Eve and his house was full of fireworks!
“The shed was even worse, just full of the worst stuff you could possibly have. He had 20 sticks of gelignite, he had gun powder, he had Oxy Acetylene cylinders and he even had magnesium. When you put water on magnesium when it’s on fire it actually reacts violently.
“So there were, all of these fireys all doing our best… but there were massive explosions and wrought iron sheets flying over our heads.
“One of the guys hit one of the corners of the shed and it was full of magnesium. Well, it exploded that much that it knocked about 10 blokes over!
“It was scary, but at the end of it you walked away thinking ‘wow’. It was just amazing.”
A veteran of 218 games in the NRL – most of them with St George, Illawarra and, fittingly, St George Illawarra in his final season in 1999 – Mackay said it was the similarities he saw between rugby league and the fire brigade that first attracted him to his current venture.
“I’d met a lot of fireys when I moved down to Stanmore Park and the camaraderie, the morale that the fireman have at the station – you do two 10-hour days and two 10-hour nights, so you become great mates.
“I was at Kogarah for eight-and-a-half years and had a great shift there, now I’ve moved to Sutherland and I work with thee great guys I’ve become pretty close mates with as well.
“Like footy, there is an element of danger in the job and an element of excitement as well.”
And although an average night’s work doesn’t necessarily involve full-blown pyrotechnics, Mackay insists there is never a dull moment.
“Last night we had a possum in a chimney and we did our best to get that fella out,” he laughs.
“We have a lot of car fires. The other night we had a big fire down in the caravan park – one of the cabins went up – so there is always something up. It’s always different and every fire you go to is different as well. Even a car fire can give you a fright sometimes if the petrol tank blows up or the tires pop out on you.”
It seems a lifetime ago now, but there was a time when New South Wales were the dominant Origin force and Mackay a key player in their ongoing success.
The hard-working back-rower played 17 games for the Blues between 1989-1995 for four series wins and three losses and, alongside winning the Clive Churchill medal in St George’s 1993 grand final loss to Brisbane, still rates those games as his career highlights.
“Knowing I was part of that team for seven years – knowing that State of Origin is the highest level of rugby league that you can play – I’m pretty excited looking back at the results and what I did,” he says.
“It’s hard to explain what it’s like to play Origin for those that haven’t been there. Just the passion and the speed of the game – so much of the game is played on instinct.
“We would go into those games with maybe only three set moves off taps because it’s such an instinct game – you’ve got no time. It’s like trying to control a car that’s out of control going down the highway at 100mph. It just happens fast.
“A lot of the time you’re trying to communicate with your team-mates who you haven’t played with at all – it hits hard for 80 minutes and just the passion of the supporters always drives you and lifts you.
“Jamie Soward, Trent Merrin and Dean Young who haven’t been there before – that’s what they will experience this week. The build-up is great and I look back on it fondly.”
Still a passionate Dragons fan – “closer than ever” in fact – Mackay admits to having a tear in the eye as he watched St George Illawarra claim their historic premiership success last season, having played in two losing deciders with St George and a third with the merged club in 1999.
“I wish I had been there with them but it was great to see them break the drought,” he said.
“The thing I remember most about it was after the game, Dean Young embracing his Dad.
“Craig was the last captain to win a grand final with the Dragons and here was the next generation coming through and winning one. That was the memory that sticks out most.”
Mackay is even more intrigued to see how the new-look NSW squad performs.
Although he admits that not all selections have him overly confident of ending Queensland’s reign, he believes that the presence of seven Dragons can only benefit the squad as they prepare for next Wednesday’s series opener.
“When I first started playing State of Origin I was the only guy from the Dragons playing in the state team and I was for about three years,” he recalls.
“But you could see the guys that were from the same side – we had a lot of Canberra guys in the team when I played and you could see the camaraderie that they had. All the other players tried to be a part of that as well because on the field you’re going to need that.
“When Soward and the other guys take the field next week they will have familiar faces there and familiar calls. In fact, the whole right-hand side defence of the Dragons – they’ve got Beau Scott, Jamie Soward, Gasnier and Morris so that will be really comforting to all the Dragons.”
Mackay said that his own experiences – including the famous 1995 series when an understrength Queensland squad swept the Blues 3-0 in one of the great Origin upsets – had taught him that anything was possible and tipped NSW to prove a few doubters wrong over the coming weeks.
Asked if the Blues had a shot at stealing back the title in 2011, Mackay said: “Oh yeah, for sure.
“I was lucky enough to play in four winning series so I was part of a lot of good wins. It’s funny, when the game is over you just feel this massive relief more than anything. You feel elated and everything, but just relieved to walk off the field, hold your head high and know that in that moment you represented your state and played well. Unfortunately a lot of these boys haven’t felt that yet but I think they can.
“I know Queensland have Lockyer and Thurston but there is no reason why NSW can’t create an upset. Ricky Stuart said it a few months ago in the paper that NSW haven’t been able to win against the odds for quite some time.
“I guess my idea of that is you’ve got to pick the right team because not everyone can play State of Origin, but no-one can tell me NSW can’t win this so I just hope they believe in themselves and that Ricky has them believing in themselves as well.”