Josh Hannay deserved a better end to his professional rugby league career. The solid-as-a-rock centre, who first came to prominence when he was selected for the Cowboys as a 16-year-old, had nine strong seasons in first grade at North Queensland and two successful stints with the Maroons before it all unravelled. Before he signed with Cronulla and Ricky Stuart sent him to play park football with Gymea. Before he was forced to Wales and, eventually, was deported after the UK Border Agency identified he and five Celtic Crusaders team-mates had breached their visa conditions. Before life as he knew it changed forever.
On the eve of the Cowboys’ crucial clash with, ironically, Cronulla, Hannay opened up about his turbulent past few years.
“[I can’t go back to] the entire UK for 10 years,” Hannay, 31, tells NRL.com. “I guess I ran out of luck in my final two experiences at Cronulla and Wales, although at Wales it was nothing to do with anyone in the footballing department – it was probably sloppy work by the CEO who got us over there initially. There’s certainly no bad feelings towards the football staff [at the Crusaders], they were terrific – it was just sad the experience was cut a year or two short.”
North Queensland’s second-highest points-scorer of all time played 150 games for the Cowboys from 1998-2006 and was an integral part of the side as it slowly rejected mediocrity and began reaching for the stars.
“The best way to describe it was a tale of two halves,” Hannay, who still is close friends with many of his former North Queensland and Cronulla team-mates, says. “The first few years were really trying – we struggled to gain credibility and respect in the competition and we were down the bottom of the table for my first few years... it was a real battle to stay positive and enjoy things.”
“In 2002 we started to show some signs we were improving though and I think we won the most games we’d won in a season, and in 2003 we improved again to a point in 2004 we made our maiden finals appearance and in ’05 the grand final. That four-year block from 2002-2005 was really enjoyable... you felt you were finally gaining some respect from the wider rugby league community.
“Having that success, Townsville was such a great place to play. People were lining the streets to farewell us on the way to the airport – we were like rock stars! They are really memorable moments and made all that hard work we put in during the initial years all worth it.”
During the rise of the Cowboys – when they transformed from also-rans into preliminary finalists in 2004 and runners-up in 2005 – players got noticed by representative selectors. Livewire fullback Matt Bowen, dependable centre Paul Bowman and the energetic and irrepressible halfback Johnathan Thurston were all selected in Queensland’s State of Origin side. So too was Hannay, an ultra-reliable defender, a strong ball-runner and an excellent left-footed goal-kicker. The man himself rates his two matches for Queensland – a 30-point win in Origin III, 2003 and a two-point victory in Origin III, 2006 – as career highlights.
“It was a great personal achievement to be selected to play a couple of games for Queensland,” Hannay, who still plays in his home town Moranbah near Mackay in Queensland, says. “I was really fortunate to experience Origin and lucky enough to win both... and in 2006 be part of a winning series. We had no idea that the win was going to be the start of a six-series streak... it was great to have played a very miniscule part.”
But that same month, in July 2006, Hannay was sounded out by then-Sharks coach Stuart Raper and agreed to a two-year term to move to Sydney and play with Cronulla. His rugby league career would never be the same again. Raper was sacked just two months later and Ricky Stuart took over. Hannay, a former Origin star, grand-finalist and NRL veteran, would play just three first grade matches under Stuart.
“It’s hard to explain what happened there, even now,” Hannay admits. “I was extremely excited about coming down to Sydney for a fresh start, living in a city like Sydney and playing for the Sharks. I was super keen to play really well for Cronulla.
“To this day I’ve never really had an explanation from Ricky – I was getting second-hand messages through Greg Pierce who was the football manager at the time that Ricky wanted to drop me... to park football. Ricky never sat down with me or confronted me and explained why it happened... and I left there without an explanation.
“It’s a shame the way it all ended. I was pretty bitter there for a while – I felt unfairly treated and didn’t feel my form warranted that kind of treatment... I’m not bitter now as it’s four years ago, but part of me still thinks if I was treated more fairly and more reasonably, who knows? I’m only 31 now and I was really enjoying my time and the lifestyle at Cronulla and was genuinely really hopeful of being part of something good there.
“I was just really glad Queensland won the Origin series this year more than ever. I was ringing ‘JT’ (Johnathan Thurston) saying ‘whatever you do, just make sure you win’. I think it’s only natural to harbour a grudge when you’re treated the way I was.”
After the Sharks eventually granted him a release Hannay found a new home, albeit on the other side of the world. Wales was calling, and Hannay was happy to lend a hand to the Celtic Crusaders, a club then chasing a promotion to the English Super League.
“The experience over there was great,” Hannay says. “I went over there and rediscovered my love of the game.
“Wales is rugby union heartland – it’s a bit like the Melbourne Storm gaining a foothold in Victoria... We had a really parochial band of supporters and a year later when we did gain promotion to the Super League, it was a massive thing for the people involved who had been getting that off the ground. It was the first time the country had been involved in Super League.”
But Hannay’s footballing career was once again turned around. The Crusaders’ offices were raided by border officials and files analysed before, eventually, he and five team-mates were ordered to leave the UK in August 2009.
“We were notified straight away that six of us were under investigation,” Hannay recalls. “We played for another 10 weeks with this hanging over our head and were well aware of what the penalties might be... It was a bit of a stressful time. I wasn’t ready to leave the country and I was enjoying playing Super League even though we were having a rough year. The decision came and we had to leave the country within four weeks.”
Hannay reasons he has more important things to do than fester over past misfortune. He’s back in his home town of Moranbah where he co-owns a menswear store, Zoo Town, with his sister, and does shift work in the mines.
And he’s still playing rugby league, too, for the Moranbah Miners. He’s back where it all began, where, before his professional career ended, he last played as a junior. The Miners are minor premiers this season and Hannay says his team are in finals mode and keen to win a premiership for the local town.
And to gain a positive from the game after a frustrating few years is all Hannay could wish for.