Burleigh's half measures
Twelve months after questioning their respective futures in rugby league, Burleigh Bears halves Jamal Fogarty and Cameron Cullen have an Intrust Super Cup title in their sights and two NRL clubs ready to welcome them with open arms.
For Fogarty, it was an unexpected text message; for Cullen a simple desire to return home.
Two young halves from the Gold Coast have largely lived parallel lives, but only ever intersected as opponents on the footy field.
They came together at Burleigh at the start of the season and have not only guided their team to the Intrust Super Cup grand final, but secured their futures at NRL clubs in Sydney.
When their commitments to the Bears end either this weekend or in the NRL State Championship (October 2), Fogarty and Cullen will prepare to move on to Parramatta and Manly respectively, safe in the knowledge that they've had to earn it the hard way.
Last July when his older brother Justin tragically passed while on holiday on the Maldives, Cullen could not give playing rugby league a second thought. But after he returned home to be around friends and family on the Gold Coast, he signed to play with Burleigh.
And then he went looking for a halves partner.
“I actually got Jamal to Burleigh,” Cullen reveals. “I knew he was coming off contract at the Titans and he was at Seagulls and I knew Burleigh were looking for another half when they let go of Ryley Jacks.
“The second I signed I texted him and said, ‘Hey mate, just want to let you know that I've signed with Burleigh and we're looking for another half, be mad to have you come and play alongside me.’
“And he just texted me back, ‘Bloody oath, I'm in.’
“It only took a week or two and he was signed and then there was this flow-on effect.
“It's such a massive turnaround. From the worst year of my life in 2015 and I'd been trying for so many years to crack NRL, then when [Justin passed] and he was such a big part of my journey in footy and everything I'd almost given up, it was that bad of a year.
“Signing that contract with Burleigh, NRL was never even in my thoughts. It wasn't part of my plans at all … I just did it because I wanted to come home to where I grew up and be around family and friends, because I knew it was going to be such a tough year.”
Despite the disappointment of not having a contract with the Titans for 2016, Fogarty began the year with a young family, another on the way and excited at the prospect of the season ahead.
"We'd both come out of NRL systems and thought that if we linked up hopefully something good would happen and we'd get back into those systems and lucky enough we did this year.”
If Darren Nicholls is able to recover from injury in time to partner Zach Strasser in the halves for the Dolphins, the match-up of the respective playmakers shapes as one of the highlights of the decider.
Strasser was brilliant in guiding Redcliffe past Sunshine Coast in a dominant second half performance while Fogarty and Cullen have been the lynchpins behind Burleigh's resurgence in 2016.
Cullen achieved his dream of playing in the NRL with the Titans and Fogarty's debut appears destined to come in a different blue and gold, but whatever happens from here, Cullen is adamant they are better equipped to handle it.
Fogarty (22), is the father of two young children and also believes he is far better positioned to make his mark in the NRL once he joins the Eels for pre-season training.
“My eyes are a bit more open now. Coming straight out of the 20s you think everything's going to fall at your feet until it all comes crashing down. Then you've got to mentally prepare yourself to get back up,” Fogarty said.
“I took my first two years at the Titans for granted.
“I was filthy that I did that over this past year and that's why I've worked so hard to hopefully now get a second chance and not take it for granted.”
A former editor of Big League, Tony Webeck is the Chief Queensland Correspondent for NRL.com.
*This column has been abridged. Read the full story in the special grand final edition of the Queensland Rugby League programme – available on game day this Sunday at Suncorp Stadium.