Gallen ready to break 300 milestone
He's one of the toughest players the game has ever seen, and on Friday night, Sharks skipper Paul Gallen will become the 29th player to achieve the 300-game milestone when the defending premiers head north to take on the Broncos.
In a career that started way back in 2001 and is set to continue for at least one more season, Gallen has come to epitomise what it means to be a Shark, with the 35-year-old fittingly the one to hoist the premiership trophy last year when Cronulla claimed its maiden title with a gritty win over the Storm.
But before he was the tireless lock we've all come to know, Gallen was once a young rookie trying to impress his idols, even going so far as to tell a Kangaroos prop forward to 'get stuffed' on his NRL debut.
"I remember trying to chip and chase and I can only imagine what (then Sharks coach) Johnny Lang was saying about me in the box," Gallen recalled of his NRL debut (a 36-6 loss to the Eels in 2001).
"I remember telling Jason Stevens to 'Get stuffed – it's my run' and he commented to me after the game 'I think you might go a fair way mate because not many 19 or 20-year-olds tell an Australian front-rower to get stuffed'.
"I remember when I was coming into first grade, I thought those guys were gods – Stevo (Stevens), ET (Andrew Ettingshausen) and Noddy (Brett Kimmorley) and all those guys that I came up and played with.
"We weren't exposed to them as much as the guys are now; the under-20s train with us all the time so they don't think that it's any different to first grade. Back then I just thought that these guys were superstars, so for me to actually do that on the field, I don't know what came over me. I did, it’s in the past and I've been lucky enough to play 300 games."
While a lot has changed since then, the former NSW Blues skipper and Kangaroos star has remained true to himself with Gallen always willing to put his hand up for the tough carry or produce the big play when his side needs it most.
His numbers in 2017 remain first class (180 metres and 32 tackles per game) leading coach Shane Flanagan to label him Cronulla's greatest player.
"That's very nice to hear and very humbling obviously," he said.
"You look at some of the players who have come before me and played before me – I signed at the club because of players like ET and got to play with Brett Kimmorley who was probably one of my favourite players – so there have been a lot of great players here.
"I think winning that premiership last year was the highlight of my career and probably holds me up there."
While the 2016 premiership will remain a career highlight, things haven't always been so rosy with Gallen forced to endure the ASADA scandal as well as several crippling injuries that kept him out of the game for extended periods.
That's why Gallen wants his teammates – especially the younger ones who have enjoyed plenty of success in recent years – to make the most of their opportunities given things can turn in an instant.
"2001 and 2002 were pretty good years so you come into first grade as a 20-year-old thinking that's going to happen every year, and all of a sudden [things don't go so well in] 2003 and we all know the history of the club since then and there have been some pretty tough times," he said.
"When you get the opportunity in a good side, you've got to make the most of it, and that's the message I'm delivering to these guys at the moment. We've got an opportunity to do something special, we've got a good side…and we've got to make the most of it."
Those tough times could have forced him out of the club, and while he admits there were tempting offers on the table, loyalty made it an easy decision for him to stay in the Shire.
"There were times throughout my career where I had opportunities to go to stronger clubs at the time for a lot more money, but my dad was – not the deciding factor – but a major influence in my decision to remain loyal," Gallen continued.
"I think that's one of my traits and it's something that I live by and I've shown that at this club and it's something I'll be very proud of when I retire."
Having seen teammates Chris Heighington and Luke Lewis celebrate the 300-game milestone already in 2017, Gallen admitted he was unlikely to get caught up in the hype this week, with the magnitude of the achievement set to sink in when his playing days are over.
"I think it'll mean more to me when I retire," he said.
"At the moment I'm just concerned about this week and winning the game, so I think when I retire it'll mean a whole lot more. I don't know what to feel about it at the moment; it's all about getting out there this weekend and getting the win against Brisbane."