Unsung Heighington set to join 300 club
Cronulla's Saturday afternoon showdown with the Newcastle Knights will take on extra meaning with unsung hero Chris Heighington set to become the 26th player to reach 300 NRL games.
The former Wests Tigers back-rower joined the Sharks in 2013 and has been a shining light for the club ever since, helping deliver the Shire its first premiership in a heart-stopping grand final win over the Storm last year.
Now in his 15th year in first grade, Heighington has won a premiership with two different clubs, scored 41 tries and represented England; all of them achievements he never thought possible as a teenager coming up through the grades.
Never the fastest, strongest or most creative player in the game, Heighington relied on his incredible work ethic, adaptability and toughness to reach the milestone, with the much-loved big man set to be honoured in style in front of his home fans.
"Who would’ve thought that I'd play 300? Two hundred popped around at the Tigers, then I moved on from there to here and it's come around really quickly the 100 games. It's an honour – I feel really grateful to get the opportunity," he said.
Heighington made his NRL debut off the bench for the Tigers against St George Illawarra back in 2003, with the black and golds doing enough to snatch a 24-20 win over the Red V.
Testament to Heighington's longevity, the other three reserves that day – Nick Bradley-Qalilawa, Chris Paterson and Troy Wozniak – only managed 107 NRL appearances between them.
He was a part of the Tigers' fairytale premiership in 2005 and was considered one of the club's favourite sons on and off the field.
"To be honest, I couldn't believe I was making my debut," Heighington recalled.
"I was still travelling from the Central Coast to Concord for training.
"Tim Sheens gave me the opportunity in Round 1, 2003 to play in the double-header. We played against the Dragons and got the win and it was a great experience. It came so quickly because I'd only started the pre-season at the end of 2002.
"I got seven games in 2003 and it was like an addiction; I just wanted more of it so I just put my head down and worked. If there was somewhere that I was lacking, I'd do everything I could to pick that up. You just keep evolving your game and that's how you stay in the game for as long as you can."
 Telstra Premiership: Chris Heighington
All Run Metres, Tackles, Tackle Breaks, Offloads.
On Saturday, Heighington will join names such as Cameron Smith, Steve Menzies and Darren Lockyer to have reached the 300 club, but the 35-year-old admits it will feel weird to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the game's greats.
"It doesn't sit well with me to have my name next to them," he said.
"I've probably got to thank my physios because I've had them flat-out. I know my body pretty well and I know what it needs to perform at NRL level. I love training and working hard and getting better as a player. The game has developed and I've tried to go along with that.
"I've been lucky with injuries. I've only broken a few bones – I haven't had any reconstructions which is pleasing, touch wood. I've had a great ride and I've really enjoyed it.
"I just lead by example and do everything I can on the field, and hopefully the young kids come with you. One day when I'm finished, hopefully some guy jumps up and takes the role I had at the club."
Heighington is still playing as well now as he did 10 years ago, and his impact hasn't been lost on his teammates.
Captain-in-waiting at the Sharks, Wade Graham, was full of praise for the milestone man, who could be joined in the 300 club by teammates Luke Lewis and Paul Gallen later in the year.
"To reach 300 games is an enormous effort. It's a testament to how well he's played over the years and his longevity and his durability. He's certainly been an integral member of our squad for the last three or four years," Graham said.
"Flanno (Sharks coach Shane Flanagan) has always done a great job with not only bringing in great players, but also bringing in blokes who add something to the group, and 'Heighno' has certainly done that.
"He's a great character off the field, he's very likeable and he's easily one of the most popular in the team."