Jackson Hastings thought his career was over after falling out of favour at Manly last year but the Super League Man of Steel is now just one win away from completing a fairytale season with Salford.
Hastings, who left the Sea Eagles in bitter circumstances midway through last season after clashing with coach Trent Barrett and senior players, has been hailed a hero in England after leading Salford to their first grand final appearance against St Helens at Old Trafford on Saturday night.
A win would cap a remarkable turnaround for the 23-year-old playmaker, who is under consideration for a place in the upcoming Great Britain Lions tour and was last weekend awarded the 2019 Man of Steel as Super League player of the year.
“It’s obviously the greatest achievement that I have ever had in my career, and probably in my life,” Hastings said.
“From where I was about 16 months ago, I never really thought I was going to play again at a professional level. I thought I was going to have to get a job, which isn’t a bad thing but I would much rather play rugby league. I have dedicated my whole life to it.
“Rugby league is a great equaliser. I soon found out that it can be taken away from you quicker than you are given it and I probably didn’t respect it or appreciate it as much as I should have and I quickly found out that it is easy to get rid of someone.”
Hastings paid tribute to Blacktown Workers coach Steven Hales for helping him turn his career around when he was on the outer at Manly and also to Salford coach Ian Watson and CEO Ian Blease for giving him another chance.
“I was sitting on my couch watching guys my age doing things that I really wanted to do and I was sitting at home, pretty much jobless and waiting until 6pm to go an hour-and-a-half out west to train,” he said.
“Steven Hales really lit that fire for me to want to be the best I can and obviously without the two Ians I wouldn’t be here with the trophy.”
Hastings’ mother, Megan, and two younger sisters travelled from Wollongong to watch him star in last weekend’s 30-6 defeat of Wigan that has propelled Salford into their first Super League grand final.
He walked onto the field holding hands with his two sisters, while Megan was his guest at the Man of Steel awards – which also recognised Gold Coast-bound St Helens mentor Justin Holbrook as coach of the year after Saints won the minor premiership by 16 points from Wigan.
After receiving the award, Hastings thanked his mother, sisters, grandfather and late grandmother for their influence on his career.
“Without the five of them I don’t know what I would be doing,” he said. “Mum had to work full-time and Granddad and Nan were sort of like my co-parents.
“They took me to all my long haul training sessions when I had to go to Wagga Wagga, which was a five-hour drive or granddad drove his RV down to Melbourne to watch me play touch footy and he has flown over the other side of the world a couple of times on his own just to watch me play.”
Should Hastings help Salford to an upset defeat of St Helens he is likely to earn a place in the Great Britain Lions squad to be named after the grand final.
Like former Canberra five-eighth Blake Austin, who has been called into the England World Cup Nines squad after the withdrawal of injured Warrington team-mate Jack Hughes, Austin qualifies through an English grandparent and lodged papers last week to prove his eligibility.
“We’d have liked to have it all confirmed a little bit sooner, especially when you consider how quick Blake was, but we understand where Jackson was at and now he’s in contention like everybody else,” RFL director of rugby Kevin Sinfield said.
“From my experience of spending a bit of time with him, he’s a quite a sociable lad anyway who will fit into most dressing rooms so we’ll see what happens.”
Other former NRL players in the grand final include Salford’s Joey Lussick, Tui Lolohea, Krisnan Inu and Ken Sio.
St Helens fullback Lahlan Coote will be aiming to become the 13th player to win an NRL and Super League grand final, while his team-mates include Kevin Naiqama, Zeb Taia, Joseph Paulo and Dominique Peyroux.