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Return of the Mac: Rake didn't know he'd be back

Andrew McCullough holds no animosity towards Kevin Walters or the Broncos, believing his rocky road in and out of Red Hill over the past year has been a blessing in disguise for his NRL career.

As McCullough sat back to savour a surprise Origin selection three years after he last donned the Maroons jersey, the 31-year-old reflected upon the turbulent past 13 months in which he changed clubs three times and twice exited his beloved Broncos.

"Yeah, I’m very surprised - crazy 24 to 48 hours for myself. I didn’t think I was going to get that call," he said.

"I just never really thought about it, I just wanted to go play some good footy for St George [Illawarra].

"I was happy, I was healthy, I was enjoying going to training still. It just shows you never know what is around the corner in rugby league.

"With the young lads who are playing hooker at the moment are out injured so it’s tough and opportunities just come at different stages and I didn’t think I would get my opportunity when I did at 28 so you just never know for any player out there when they will get their chance."

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Getting back into Maroon was the last thing on McCullough’s to-do list when he packed his bags at Red Hill in February and moved south for a fresh start under former Broncos coach Anthony Griffin at the Dragons.

McCullough had been released by former Broncos coach Anthony Seibold in May last year and spent the rest of the 2020 season with Newcastle but a hamstring injury after just eight games cut short his time at the Knights.

So he moved back to Brisbane to take up the option for the final year of his contract but when Walters wanted to delay talks for a new deal until later in 2021 McCullough read the writing on the wall and appreciated an offer from Griffin to secure his long-term future.

Cutting the chord with Walters, the man who handed him his Queensland Origin debut in 2018, was difficult.

"It was really tough," he said.

"Kevvie just wanted to see how the year went first before there was any decisions made but at the end of the day I had a three-year deal from St George [Illawarra], I’ve got a wife, a mortgage so I knew a lot of players at St George [Illawarra] and the coach as well, so that was also a decision as well.

"It was tough to tell Kev and he understood where I was coming from. It’s one of those things that worked out and we all went our own way.

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"Everything happens for a reason. If I didn’t make that trip I don’t know if I would be here [in Origin] and playing as well as I am.

"My football has been pretty solid this year. I look back now and think I’m pretty grateful for what I’ve done in the game but I also want to do a lot more in the game too."

Still, McCullough must look at the past 13 months moving around like a nomad as the toughest of his career.

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"It’s been a blessing in disguise, to be honest," he said.

"If you look back now at the injury with the hamstring but I ended up meeting some of my really good mates in Newy now that I’m close with and still keep in contact with.

"If I didn’t make those moves or have those injuries I wouldn’t have those friendships."

One of the big drawcards for McCullough at the Dragons was his former Broncos halfback buddy Ben Hunt.

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It isn’t lost on either of them that they’ve now been recalled to Origin together, possibly sharing the hooking duties with Hunt the utility off the bench, while the Broncos languish at the bottom of the NRL table.

Hunt said McCullough spoke to him prior to joining the Dragons and he was pleased to see how he’d rebuilt his career in such a short space of time.

"It’s been an up and down couple of years for him, but it’s good to have him down at the Dragons," Hunt said.

"He is really happy now and I think he is playing some great footy and really deserves to be called into the side.

"We had a chat a couple of times [before he came] … I think it made it a bit easier for him to make that decision."

While McCullough got the chance to play this, his fourth Origin game, through injury to Storm hooker Harry Grant there is nobody in the Maroons camp expecting miracles from the Dragons No.9.

What you see is what you get with McCullough. He’ll lead Queensland’s defensive line, give sharp service from dummy half, kick deep when he gets a chance and make endless tackles.

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"Macca will be great, he is a veteran and he has played it before," Hunt said.

"He is a real solid defender and he will get the job done. He will give real good service to the halves and just play a clean game.

"I don’t think it’s in Macca’s game to come out and blow anyone off the park. He just wants to come in, do his job ... defend well and give good passes."

 

Origin II in Brisbane is sold out but tickets are still on sale for game three at Stadium Australia in Sydney on July 14 - get your tickets at NRL.com/tickets.