Sam Thaiday is standing in the bowels of ANZ Stadium, struggling to come to terms with an unexpected and unedifying loss to Canterbury on Thursday night.
As talk turns to his 300th game for the Brisbane Broncos next Thursday night in Townsville against the North Queensland Cowboys, his mind drifts back to another belting he received at the hands of the Bulldogs.
Thaiday had just turned 18 when he made his first appearance for the Broncos in 2003. It was the one and only game he would play in first grade that year and it came against a Bulldogs side with a point to prove after the salary cap scandal the year before.
Thaiday started on the interchange bench in a Brisbane side largely bereft of household names and he hasn’t forgotten his first touch of the ball.
“First run, Mark O’Meley levelled me pretty much,” Thaiday said. “I think my second run he levelled me again. It was a rude awakening to first grade.
“Once I played that first game I was hungry to keep playing.
“I got injured in my first game. I had a high ankle sprain and missed six weeks of footy. I can remember getting that first taste and then sitting there rehabbing for six weeks trying to get back playing footy again because I just wanted to be in that first grade team.
“It has been a lot of hard work over a lot of years. It is a very, very special club. I am lucky to be part of it.
“There are a lot of young footy players out there who aspire to play one first grade game. I have been one of the lucky ones who have played 300 games for my club, I have represented my state, represented my country and represented my people where my dad is from up in the Torres Strait.
“I have been very, very lucky in my career.”
Luck only gets you so far. Hard work and talent have had so much more to do with Thaiday’s success, allowing him to clamber up all of the sport’s peaks.
Three years after making his debut, he was a fixture in the Broncos side and one of the pillars of their premiership success that year. That same year he made his debut for Queensland, going on to wear the Maroons jersey 29 times. There were 34 appearances for his country.
He was a two-time Dally M second-rower of the year and a winner of the Ken Stephen Memorial Award for his outstanding contribution to the community in 2011.
He has been and remains a much-loved figure in Queensland, albeit one who occasionally alienated NSW fans with some of his antics on the field.
“He is a funny guy,” Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said. “He has a good sense of humour. Sometimes he is a bit over the top — nobody gets it but him.
“I told him when I came back, ‘Some of your humour is a bit weird.’ I said, ‘Just run it by me before you say some of these things that you think are funny.’ He just laughed at me.
“He is wonderful in the community. He is the most popular Bronco. Wherever he goes people want an autograph or photo with him. Sam is a different dude — not different silly, just different.”
Fittingly, 33-year-old Thaiday makes his 300th appearance against the Cowboys, a club he grew up supporting as a child in Townsville.
“I wanted to be a Cowboy,” he said. “I went to the first game with my dad and my brother and we sat on the hill. When the Cowboys came to town it just lifted the town, it was just a whole buzz around rugby league.
“We had our own team finally. It was tough times early on. I can still remember as a kid when we signed on at a junior club, we got two tickets to go to each game.
“If I didn’t get my two tickets I sold Big League (magazine) so I could get a free ticket to get in there. So I have always been a Cowboys fan.
“I will support them when I finish and stop playing footy. It was just through different circumstances I didn’t end up there and ended up being picked up by the Broncos.
“It could be a totally different story if I stayed in Townsville and played my career there. I don’t know if I would have had the journey I have had so far.
“So I am grateful for the Broncos and the way it has ended up.”
The Broncos are grateful in return. Bennett first laid eyes on Thaiday at a Queensland Academy of Sport camp when he was on the Cowboys’ books but in the sights of famed Broncos scout Cyril Connell. He was instantly hooked.
“We were up at Nambour playing a game and I hadn’t seen him before,” Bennett said.
“From the kick-off, he went through about three blokes, went 90 metres and scored the try. I knew he was a bit special then. I said to Cyril … I want him at the Broncos. He got him. He turned up here as an 18 or 19-year-old boy. He is mentally very tough. He had a lot of ability.
“He is not the quickest guy in the world but he gets himself around the park because he knows what is going on. He came through the era of Petero (Civoniceva) and Brad Thorn.
“They were pretty good role models for him. He learnt a lot from them. He got beaten up a lot at training by them, I know that.
“We’re so lucky he came to our club actually. He has done a hell of a lot of work for this club. He is at the end of his run but he has been wonderful for us this year.”
Thaiday will retire at the end of the season as only the third Broncos player to appear in 300 games for the club — former teammates Darren Lockyer and Corey Parker are the other two.
Only 31 players in the game’s history have reached the feted mark. Asked whether it was a special moment, he replied: “Yeah, considering as a young fella I never thought I would play first grade at the Broncos.
“They had such a star forward pack. It is going to be a great occasion and a great opportunity to go back home and play my 300th game where it all kind of started for me as a local junior in Townsville.
“I have a lot of friends and family that will be at the game. It is going to be exciting times. Hopefully as a team, we can turn things around next week and put in a performance against the Cowboys.
“It is a huge and a great honour. I am very grateful for the opportunity I have had at this club. The players I have had around me and the coach who has guided me through most of my career has been Wayne (Bennett).
“So it is going to be good to be the third player at the Broncos to reach that milestone. It’s going to be amazing and I am going to have a lot of friends and family there to watch and cheer on.”
Thaiday can see the end looming although there is still life in Brisbane’s season. The loss to Canterbury on Thursday night was a setback to their hopes of a top-four finish, and in turn their plans to send out the veteran second-rower with a premiership.
At the same time, they have shown on their good days that they are more than capable of holding their own against the premiership heavyweights. The problem has been their good days have been too few and far between.
They have invariably saved their worst for the worst — losing games against some of the competition’s minnows. It has been a distinctly un-Broncos-like season, the only saving grace being that only a major disaster would stop them playing finals football.
“Back on the rollercoaster,” Thaiday said. “It has been the way our season has panned out this year. We seem to win a couple of games in a row then lose one, win three games in a row then lose one.
“We just struggled to really find that consistency this year. It is there. I think we have shown over the past two weeks that when we put our mind to it and play a top-eight team, we seem to bring out a fairly good footy game.
“It is the bottom-eight teams we are struggling against. I don’t know whether we are coming in underdone or taking them a bit lightly, but we were definitely out-enthused early against the Bulldogs. That really killed us — dropped balls, fourth-tackle penalties was another one. You want to do something at the end of the year, you can’t be doing those things. We will fix it.”
Thaiday expects plenty of family and friends to be in Townsville on Thursday night. Even more will be at Suncorp Stadium when the Brisbane host Manly in his final regular season game as a Bronco. Thaiday has already bought 150 tickets to cater for those who plan on coming. For the moment, he is manfully soldiering on, doing his level best to ensure Brisbane remain in the hunt for a premiership and keep alive the dream of a Cinderella end to one of the great careers.
“I am sore, I am tired,” he said.
“One of the trainers asked me the other day how I was going, and I said I felt like an old John Deere tractor out in the paddock.
“I just keep chugging along. I will try to enjoy it as much as I can and have as much fun as I can with the boys. It’s going to be very, very different for me next year.
“I am going to have to find a hobby, I think.”