For Warriors prop Jacob Lillyman, Sunday’s grand final represents more than just the opportunity to fight it out for a premiership. It’s also vindication for what he describes as the toughest two years of his rugby league career.
The former North Queensland back-rower took a huge chance in late 2008 when he decided to leave his junior club and move across the Tasman – the move temporarily backfiring as a loss of form and a shocking run with injury costing him his Queensland jersey and forcing him to question his chosen path.
“It took a little while [to settle in] to be honest,” Lillyman told NRL.com when asked about his move to the Warriors. “I came over here and the first year was a tough year for me personally. I’d just had my two shoulder reconstructions – one on each shoulder – before I came over and I probably struggled to adjust to the club. It was a tough year for everyone. As a team we didn’t perform and me personally, my form wasn’t up to scratch either.
“I had really high hopes for last year too… had an awesome pre-season but then broke my foot and that kept me out for 10 or 12 weeks. I had to claw my way back from there.
“But I think it’s finally started to happen for me this year and I’m glad I can finally give the club some value. Hopefully I’m justifying them bringing me over in the first place.”
The turning point was a decision by coach Ivan Cleary last season to move Lillyman to the front row. For a guy that had spent his entire career – including his four games for Queensland – wider out, it was a big call and one that didn’t sit too well initially.
“I was reluctant at first,” he recalled. I guess for back-rowers it’s not a move that’s looked upon with too much anticipation. It’s probably dreaded among back-rowers. But I had played in fits and spurts there and to be honest the writing was on the wall. I had played my best football there and when it came together I enjoyed playing there more.
“I think when he first brought it up I said ‘I don’t mind playing front row but I don’t want to take away the option of playing back row’! That was the thing – I wanted to keep one foot in each door. But as of this year, the club has got a lot of depth in the back row so the writing was on the wall for me. Once I got my head around it, I embraced it, so I’ve made the permanent move and I’m really happy that I did. It’s been a pretty big learning curve for me this year but I’ve enjoyed it.”
Perhaps it is a case of the stars finally aligning for Lillyman.
Having settled into his new role up front and shrugged off the injury woes of recent years, he earned a recall to the Queensland squad in May and played two of three games as the Maroons claimed a record sixth consecutive State of Origin series win.
He has also become a key member of the Warriors’ pack – his performance last Saturday night arguably his finest in a Warriors jersey as he hammered the Melbourne line in a dominant second-half display. Now, as he prepares for Sunday’s decider, the 27-year-old said he was determined to make the most of his first ever grand final week.
“I think you have to take it all in,” he said. “This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so it’s important that we do that but at the same time it’s equally important to maintain your focus and not lose sight of the bigger picture which is trying to win the premiership.
“It’s uncharted territory for a lot of us. I guess the reality is starting to sink in now. I’ve had a tough couple of years but I’ve come through the other side now – I’ve had a bit of time to process everything that’s happened and I’m really grateful for the opportunity. As a team we really want to make the most of it.”
And a premiership?
“It would mean everything, it would mean the world,” Lillyman said. “I’ve experienced both ends of the scale – I’ve been down the bottom but I’ve also had some success previously with the Cowboys.
“With all of that you get to appreciate what a magnificent achievement it is. Getting the opportunity to fight for a premiership is something you dream of so for it to be a reality is a massive honour. To win would be a massive highlight in my life.”