Round 15, 2001. Cronulla are hosting eventual grand finalists Parramatta at Shark Park and coach John Lang has handed a first grade debut to a 19-year-old kid.
The kid had been impressing in reserve grade and finally got his chance. He gets back near the goalline at the northern end to take a run to help get the Sharks out of trouble. Only for Test prop Jason Stevens to pull rank.
“It was my run every day of the week. I was ready to take a hit up and Stevo goes “mine, move out of the way.”
“I said ‘no, it’s my run. I’m here’. And he goes ‘move’. And I think he was thinking because he was Australian front-rower at the time.
“And I said ‘piss off, it’s my run’. And I remember he came to me after and said ‘I think you’re going to be a good player. There’s not many 19-year-olds who are going to tell an Australian front-rower to piss off.’”
And so, Cronulla were introduced to Paul Gallen.
After 17 seasons at the club, Gallen will play his 300th game in the black, white and blue when the Sharks put their top four hopes on the line against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium.
A week shy of his 36th birthday, Gallen is playing as well as ever. Averaging almost 180 metres per game and a tick over 32 tackles, it is the reason why Sharks coach Shane Flanagan decided to convince Gallen to go around again for an 18th season.
Gallen will become the 29th player to play 300 NRL games on Friday night, the third Cronulla player this season after Chris Heighington and Luke Lewis. It is another personal milestone to add to a glittering career.
Test player. Tick. State of Origin-winning captain. Tick. Wally Lewis Medal, Harry Sunderland Medal. Tick, tick.
Premiership-winning captain. Tick.
That 19-year-old kid has had some career.
Given his efforts for NSW, 24 Origins and that memorable series win as captain in 2014, you could be forgiven for thinking it was almost destiny that Gallen would play his 300th game at Suncorp. But the man himself isn’t bothered by it, it’s just a coincidence.
“It just worked out that way. I look back over my career and think about the games that I’ve missed and there’s probably been one, maybe two games I thought I probably could have got on the field. Had I got just one of those games I would have been able to play at home last weekend,” he said.
“Then I look at the games I played injured and there’s been a lot of them, too. It’s just the way it’s turned out. There’s been seasons where I played every game needled.”
Parramatta hammered Cronulla 36-6 in Gallen’s debut but his ability to play injured and refusal to miss games goes right back to that day.
“I remember I was playing good in reserve grade. There were a few injuries in first grade and I remember thinking I could be close here. When [Lang] called me to come up to his office I was working as a plumber at the time and my boss was a big Sharks fan and I told him Langy wanted to see me,” Gallen said.
“My boss was really good mates with Steve Rogers and I think he must have already known. He said ‘just take the day off and go and sort that out.’ Sure enough Langy called me in his office and told me I was playing first grade that week. I’ll never forget.
“I told him I had a sore calf and the physio said I might not be able to train for the week. And I remember he said ‘physios don’t know everything, don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.’”
His clearest memory of that day is trying a chip and chase down the southern end. He didn’t see Eels fullback Brett Hodgson lurking behind the line so thought he’d have a crack. Hodgson scooped up the ball and made 20 metres. Gallen could only wonder what Lang, the man who gave him his call up, was thinking in the coach’s box. We haven’t seen too many chip and chases from Gallen since.
Gallen’s consistency is what has made him one of the leading forwards in the game over such a long period of time. It is something he’s proud of, his ability to stay in form.
“Going in and out of form is something that I don’t think I’ve ever done. I think I’ve always just played the same. If you look at my best game and my worst game statistically or just watching it they’re not too far apart. I pride myself on that,” he said.
“I always hear about form, who’s in form who’s out of form. I don’t believe in that. If you’re going to be a good player you’ve got to play well every single week. And I think that’s something that I’ve done.”
Maybe the thing he is proudest of is the fact he will finish as a one-club man. There were dark times. The ASADA investigation and supplements scandal that almost crippled the club, the wooden spoon in 2014. He had two opportunities to join Manly, who went on to win two premierships after each time Gallen turned them down. It left him shaking his head, thinking he might have missed his chance.
But he stuck solid and helped lead Cronulla, the club he has given almost half his life, to their most glorious day. That historic first premiership last season, something the shire had waited half a century for. He is a hero among much of the community and will go down as arguably Cronulla’s greatest ever player.
“That means a real lot. When I was going through contract decisions early in my career it’s something my dad spoke to be about. And it wasn’t always easy. When I think back about the offer I had from Manly in 2007 and we’re talking back then a lot more money from a club that went on to win the competition in 2008,” he said.
“Then I had that opportunity again at the end of 2010 and the Sharks we were in all sorts at that stage. Manly won the comp in 2011.
“But when I look back what we did last year what we came back from as a club and as a team it makes all the tough times worthwhile.”
Gallen says as long as he continues to play to his standards he’ll keep going. He believes the Sharks’ premiership window is wide open. While the reigning premiers have only shown glimpses of their best this season it’s hard to write off a team full of stars – Valentine Holmes, James Maloney, Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita, Jack Bird, Luke Lewis.
And that 19-year-old kid. Who still has time to add a second premiership ring.