Rugby League World Special – Greg Bird looking to repay Catalans’ faith
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Keeping a promise can be difficult, especially when it was made seven years ago.
But, true to his word, Greg Bird is back at Catalans Dragons and hoping to repay the faith they showed in him when all seemed lost.
The Australian international found himself at the forefront of media attention in 2009 when he was sentenced to a maximum of 16 months imprisonment for assault, a charge of which he would later be acquitted.
Exiled from the Cronulla Sharks camp and released from his contract, unable to obtain a work permit to join Bradford Bulls, the only option seemed to be a cross-code move to little-known Southern Districts Rugby Club.
Faced with an uncertain future and a tarnished reputation, Perpignan was the light at the end of the tunnel, and the Dragons offered him a lifeline.
“It was a pretty dark time in my life personally, but it was made as comfortable as possible by these guys here,” he told Rugby League World. “They really gave me the opportunity to play Rugby League at a time when not many people wanted to give me that.
“It was a pledge that I made to (Chairman) Bernard Guasch and I wanted to come back and play for the Dragons once my rep career had finished. That was my drive in going back to the NRL in 2009, continuing to play rep football for New South Wales and Australia.
“At that time I knew it was going to be short-lived because I had my aspirations to go back. Now I’ve got a longer stay I can work some goals and try to build my position in the team.
“I’m very grateful and now the same thing has occurred, obviously under different circumstances, but hopefully I can repay them with some good football.”
Using Catalans as a springboard to get his career and life back on track, a move to Gold Coast Titans materialised at the end of his one-season stay with the French club, and a new leaf had been turned.
A World Cup win with Australia in 2013 and the 2014 State of Origin victory with New South Wales proved Bird was back to his old self, but his time again came to an abrupt end.
Seven seasons with Gold Coast Titans saw him regain respectability in the NRL, but when he was granted an early release, he took to the media to vent his feelings.
“I was disappointed with the way it was handled back there but that’s the cutthroat nature of Rugby League in Australia at the moment,” added the 32 year-old.
“They’re always looking to work the salary cap the best they can and always looking at the younger players coming through and moving on the older players.
“That’s the nature of the sport and I understood it, but it doesn’t mean I was happy about it.”
After a career littered with controversy, finally Bird has found solace in a return to the Dragons, penning a five-year deal to prove his commitment to the club.
The uncertainty he has previously experienced is now in the past, with the Dragons giving him a cemented future.
“At my age, having that job security there is really good. I’m confident in my football that it’s not going to affect my style of play having that job security,” said the back-rower.
“I know some younger players can rest a little, that’s probably not my style. I’m comfortable now and my family’s secure for the next 3-5 years whatever it may be and I can just focus on playing football.
“We’ve got a great young squad here and hopefully I can improve some of these younger French guys and make them first-grade footballers as well.”
Aiding the development of the up-and-coming French talent is something Bird will be hoping to absorb into his everyday role at the club.
The final two years of the bumper deal will see him become assistant coach, with an ambition to move into coaching something he has harboured throughout his career.
“I’m very lucky,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve dabbled in the junior ranks whilst in Australia when I was playing for the Titans.
“Last year I was assistant coach of the U18’s team there. I really enjoyed it and the team did well. I’m not sure whether I had too much to do with that though.
“I like sharing the knowledge and trying to get the best out of players. Hopefully I can pick up some French over the next couple of years because it’s definitely going to make the job a lot easier.”
His first taste of gelling into the side was one he would happily forget, however, not for the company but for the surroundings.
The Dragons explored a new method in pre-season, linking up with the Perpignan Firefighters in an intense three-day camp, ranging from car crash response to running 20k in the freezing cold Pyrénées River.
“I wish I could swear because it was the worst three days of my life. It was torture. During it, I thought it was the biggest waste of time ever,” joked Bird.
“But the second you reflect and look back and you see how everyone was in the same position and hated what they were doing.
“Everyone was hurting, but you look back and see how we dragged each other through it.
“You can definitely see some correlation between the work they do as firefighters and what Rugby League players go through.”
Perhaps the most difficult part of the programme was not only the physical demands, but that the Dragons players were forced to do it with modest provisions.
“We had one ration pack, which is usually a meal for one person. We shared one between five blokes for the whole day,” he explained.
“That wasn’t much fun. The first day was pretty tough and then we did a first aid course from midnight through to when the sun came up.
“It’s supposed to be tough and that was the point of it. But I’m glad to see the back of it to be honest.”
Safe to say Bird will not be reminiscing about such a testing schedule in his first Dragons pre-season, but he is eagerly anticipating what comes next.
His return to the sides comes as part of a squad overhaul in 2017, with Sam Moa and Luke Walsh among the household names to head for Perpignan.
Many NRL imports have seen their motives questioned when moving to the French city, but Bird insists the club have finally acquired a suitable squad.
“Everyone’s different. Some players come over for a holiday. Some come for another challenge. That’s pretty much what I’m looking at it like it’s another challenge,” he said.
“There are a lot of new players. I won’t say that’s what the club needed because hopefully they won’t need to do it again but you can see the positives that come from it.”Comment on this and other stories on the Total Rugby League Fans Forum