Bailey to reach 150 on familiar turf
Ask Luke Bailey about leaving the Red V for a team that didn't yet even exist and he'll tell you that it was a split-second decision made with his family to seek a new adventure on the Gold Coast.
His long-time manager, Allan Gainey, recalls a delicate extraction that required the negotiation of two contracts simultaneously, but the end result was the same: A foundation player the NRL's newest club could build a semi-final team around.
Although he is perhaps best known as an Illawarra junior who represented New South Wales and Australia during his seven seasons at St George Illawarra, Bailey is now in his eighth season at the Titans and will play game No.150 for the club on Sunday, fittingly, at WIN Jubilee Oval against the Dragons.
At the time of his departure from the Dragons at the end of the 2006 season Bailey had just been named the Rugby League Week player of the year, had played in Game Two and Game Three of the famous Queensland Series win but eight years on and he says he was in need of a fresh challenge.
"I just wanted to try a new side. I was pretty comfortable at St George, I was playing some decent footy and it was just a split-second decision," Bailey said ahead of his milestone game.
"I was speaking to the manager one day and I said that I wouldn't mind trying something different and he couldn't believe me, that I was keen to pack up. I was about to sign a deal with St George but just wanted a challenge. Just to try and have a crack on our own up here and eight years later I'm still loving it."
Bailey says that once he heard a new franchise was going to be based on the Gold Coast and granted entry for the 2007 season he made enquiries as to how he could be part of a start-up NRL club. Those discussions first began midway through 2005 as he was in the midst of a contract negotiation with the Dragons whilst eyeing off a more significant move some 18 months later.
Gainey was also representing the likes of Preston Campbell, Mark Minichiello and Luke O'Dwyer who would also become members of that first Titans squad and remembers clearly the reactions of both John Cartwright and Michael Searle when Bailey's name was thrown into the mix.
"I actually suggested 'Bull' to 'Searley' and 'Carty' and they both said that if they could get him that Luke would be a great foundation player to have at the club," Gainey recalls.
"Because that was still more than 12 months away we had to be open and honest with the Dragons and I went in and saw [Dragons CEO] Peter Doust, mentioned that he was keen to go and because he'd been such a great servant for the club whether they would give him a one-year contract [for 2006].
"St George were very good about it, agreed to the one-year deal and then we went down to Bull's house in Wollongong and put the basis of the [Titans] deal to him."
Three years after his departure Bailey could only look on longingly as the thing he most craves, an NRL premiership, made a long-awaited return to the St George Leagues Club under the stewardship of Wayne Bennett in 2010.
Perhaps the cruellest twist of fate was that the Titans' season itself that year had only come to a conclusion one week prior in a Preliminary Final loss to the Roosters but despite that heartbreak and the disappointment of the past four seasons, Bailey insists he has no regrets.
"Obviously bitter-sweet watching that  grand final. I was pumped for them and when I saw them on stage I thought, Why couldn't you bastards have done that a couple of years ago but good on them," says the 34-year-old who is eager to extend his NRL career into a 16th season next year.
"I had some great times there but I've always been happy with the change I made to come up here.
"I loved training back in the day with Billy Johnstone; he sorted out the pretenders from the real deal, he was quite a hard trainer. The facilities weren't flash but we enjoyed our time and we played some pretty good footy back then.
"I wouldn't say it was a flash team by any measure but it was built on guys and trying to cover each others' backsides and it was a pretty good couple of years."
The Titans have not made a semi-final appearance since that Preliminary Final of four years ago and as senior members of the team such as Ashley Harrison and Mark Minichiello prepare for the next phases of their lives, Bailey is desperately trying to pass on an awareness of making the most of every opportunity to the young players coming into the club.
"To be an NRL player now it's not enough just calling yourself a footy player. You're getting paid to win games, you're getting paid to put bums on seats and you're getting paid to eventually win a grand final," says Bailey, who many expected to retire when he snapped his achilles tendon two years ago.
"Obviously before my time's up trying to get across to these guys not to waste their time. I've played a long time and played with a lot of first graders who were just content playing first grade and forget about the hard stuff so hopefully we've left a little bit of a legacy here when me and 'Mini' go.
"I've been surprised how my body has pulled up this year and form-wise I haven't seen much of a difference over the last couple of years. I was starting on the bench but earned my way back into the starting side again and been playing some decent minutes and enjoying my footy.
"Waking up sore like everybody else but today the body feels like it's ready to go again.
"I would have liked it have had sorted something out earlier but it was really up to me to see how I was feeling towards the end of the season. Obviously it's getting late now but we'll sort something out soon."