THERE’S irony in the fact Jason Nightingale will play the remainder of his career nursing bulging discs in his neck.
Ironic given he’s stayed largely injury-free throughout his 267-game career despite showing next to no regard for his body. For a case in point, look to round one this year at Kogarah.
With centimetres to work in Nightingale scored what appeared to be an impossible try against the Broncos, leaping over the cover defence and corner post to ground the ball. He landed smack bang on his face in doing so but, as he said at his retirement announcement on Thursday, it’s been his habit.
“Putting myself in positions like that and bouncing out of them is something I’ve been able to do, something I’ve been lucky to do. I can’t really explain why,” he said with a shrug.
He remarkably came through that unscathed, but it was one of the 41 tackles he made as a back-rower against Melbourne in round 17 that left him with the injury.
"I do have two bulging disks in my neck that I didn't know about until yesterday,” he said.
“I knew I had a sore neck and left shoulder but we got the scans and found out yesterday. It sounds bad but it's all good. It was from trying to tackle people and getting in awkward positions, exactly like that, ducking at the wrong times and that sort of thing.
"I have been lucky and blessed because there's been people that have had so much worse and have had careers cut short because of it. I'm definitely not in that boat which I'm really grateful for.”
So what does one of the NRL’s great contortionists put his durability and longevity down to?
“I don’t know, probably muscular genetics,” he said.
“It looks ugly, I don’t try and do it the way it happens. I know I’m awkward and ungainly and make easy things look hard, and hard things look easy, but having that motivation and enjoying what I’ve been doing is the reason I’ve been able to do it for so long.
“I probably have to thank my parents somewhere along the way there for giving me these weird genetics. It helps with durability, obviously I work very hard on my body as well.
“I’ve tried to model a lot on consistency and I found a lot of motivation in not wanting to let people down. That’s something I’m proud of myself for being able to do.”
The club and coach Paul McGregor were both confident the soon-to-be 32-year-old could get through another season – a one-year contract was on the table.
If he were waiting for the body to wear out he’d be playing til he was 50, but the man affectionately known as ‘Gypsy’ said the decision to call time on his career at the end of the season was about a shift in life priorities.
‘‘I remember finishing last season, I rang a few people going, ‘this’ll be it’,” Nightingale said.
“I worked pretty hard through preseason because I knew if I wasn’t mentally in it I wouldn’t even get through it. I went OK there and started feeling good. We added a couple of people that made me feel a bit younger in James Graham, Jeremy Latimore, and even Benny Hunt, who’d been around for a while.
‘‘The enjoyment that I got from spending time with this group we’ve got this year, all of a sudden it made me question, ‘do I want to let this go?’ It was more on the mental side of things, physically, I’ve been very lucky.
“It would have been selfish of me to keep going and I wanted to make sure I went out when I wanted to go out and not the way it may have played out if I had played on. The club were great in offering me a contract for next year and they left the ball in my court. I know I’m making the right decision.
“Team first has always been something I have tried to live and motivated me through not wanting to let my teammates, myself and my family down. I think it is probably a point for me to shift that to family first.”
It would have been his ninth contract with his junior club and one he’s considered leaving “about zero times.” That fact hit home on Thursday when he crossed paths with former teammate and current neighbour Brett Morris.
“I saw Brett Morris this morning actually, he lives around the corner from me,” Nightingale said.
“He knew I was retiring because I told him a few days ago. Just the fact he’s going to his third club and he obviously would have had ambitions of staying at the Dragons forever as well… I do appreciate it.
“I owe this club a lot. It was one of my goals as I fell in love with my junior club as a kid, to play my whole career at the one club. To do that’s very special.”
It also puts him within reach of great mate Ben Hornby’s all-time club record of 273 appearances, though the Dragons would need to make the grand final for him to get there. It’s feat Nightingale believes is not beyond his side.
“People that do it, you always think ‘wow, that’s a good way to go’ but it’s not about myself and how I finish my career, it’s about what that achievement would mean to my teammates,” he said.
“We’ve got to check our expectations. We created our own expectations because of the way we were performing throughout the season and the weight of those expectations lately has probably got to us a bit.
“That was created because we were a confident team playing well. The pressure is a privilege and we just need to embrace that and perform because we have the potential, we’ve shown it before.
“If we can do that, we do have the side to go all the way.”