Having declared international loyalties to England last year, Chris Heighington is now preparing for another personal milestone at the Wests Tigers.
AT a time when we’re talking about where blokes are going to play in 12 months – or five years! – from now, someone needs to spare a thought for poor ol’ John Skandalis.
Take one look at the old school Magpie and you can swear he looks fit enough to double his record 185 games for the merger club.
“If you ask any retired footballer who’s spent a little bit of time on the sidelines and not getting bashed every week, mentally you think you can do it,” confesses Skandalis, now the waterboy for Wests Tigers coach Tim Sheens.
It’s why veteran second-rower Chris Heighington, with a mid-life identity crisis behind him and a club record-equalling 185th game ahead of him this week, is also talking about the future.
Even after a tough loss on the weekend, it’s still fun and games at Tigers HQ on a Monday morning. But when Big League sat down with Heighington there was no hiding how he feels about the way free agency is dealt with in this era.
Around this time last year, not only was the 29-year-old deciding whether he was a tea-drinking Pom or a fair dinkum Aussie, he was coming to grips with potentially having his Tiger stripes ripped off his back.
Talks swirled that Heighington, who made his debut in 2003, was unwanted by the only club he’s ever played for.
“I’m not going to lie, it gets tough at times with the negotiations and the salary cap,” Heighington says.
“Players have got to do what’s best for them and their family. I read in the paper that Dave Taylor went because of his family. That’s awesome. He’s from there. Every game he played for Souths, he’s worn that jersey with honour. I can’t blame anyone for leaving a club because it’s a two-way thing. The club’s got to want you and the player’s got to want to stay.”
Forget Skandalis’s record; the Camden product didn’t quite know who he was or where he belonged.
“My name got brought up in the media and that’s all it pretty much was,” he says. “I left it up to my manager and he said, ‘You’ve got two years left on the contract so you’ll be seeing them out.’
“It was disappointing it got out but that’s the way footy is. There were a few offers out there but I didn’t take it real seriously. I just wanted to stay here and I let [management] know that. But obviously there were salary cap issues and they had to get rid of some players.
“I doubt a player will play at one club for 10 years without some [drama] and mine was last year. I’m just happy to be playing with a great bunch of players.”
After years waiting by the phone to get a well earned call-up from NSW and Australian selectors, Heighington bit the bullet late last year and accepted an invitation from England coach Steve McNamara to play for the Lions in the Four Nations tournament.
Compatriot Gareth Ellis says his club-mate cut a nervous figure before meeting his new team‑mates.
“I think he was a little bit worried about having an Australian accent and then Jack Reed walks in, and he’s probably one of the most Australian blokes I’ve ever met. He comes in and took all the pressure off him,” Ellis says with a laugh.
Choosing St George’s Cross over the Southern Cross wasn’t necessarily his choice, however. What was a tug-of-war decision over his allegiances turned into a soul-searching journey that trailed all the way to the little English town of Heighington in County Durham, named after his family.
“I asked my dad about it and he wouldn’t give me a, ‘Yeah, go.’ It was more like, ‘You’re doing it,’” Heighington says.
“It was a year ago when I was talking to Steve when I brought it up with my grandad and he was the same as dad. It was pretty much, ‘You’re doing it.’ He passed away less than a year ago, so he would’ve been proud as well.
“I spent seven weeks over there and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
This week Heighington will equal the most games for the merger club and enter the top 10 for most games by a Balmain or Western Suburbs player. With a year and a half left on his contract, a couple of seasons in Super League beckon for the England international. But hey, if we’re talking about 2017 in the NRL right now, then Heighington wants to throw his hat in the ring, too.
“Hopefully I can spend some time over there, but I’m enjoying my time in the NRL as well,” he says.
“You get to test yourself week in, week out. I’ve got next year as well and with the salary cap going up, and maybe two more teams coming in, it’s going to create more opportunities here.”
It’s also an opportunity to set a mark that future Tigers may struggle to match.