Inglis ready for NRL return

Inglis ready for NRL return

Greg Inglis had checked himself into rehab only a few days earlier when Shane Richardson popped in to visit on a Sunday afternoon in May. 

Even then, when all that should have mattered was looking after the man the in the mirror, Inglis was more concerned with those around him.

''I can't imagine the amount of pressure he would have been under at the time,'' the South Sydney Rabbitohs general manager said.

''But I walked into the room, and the first thing he said to me was 'what's happening with Dane Gagai'.''

Inglis wasn't wallowing in self pity. Nor had he become so disengaged he stopped thinking about those around him. Amid his own battles through a mental health illness, he still wanted to know.

''Has anyone rung him?'' Inglis asked as he begun quizzing his close friend over the club’s pursuit of Gagai.

''I will get on to him now and make sure everything's OK.''

Of course, Richardson wasn’t going to spend the limited time he had with Inglis on the only day of visitation that week worrying about business. So Inglis picked up the phone himself.

He called Gagai and, largely through their relationship and the conversation they shared that day, the Newcastle Knights star confirmed he would be heading to Souths for the next four years despite speculation the deal may fall through.

It’s the same instinct to help those around him that caused great conjecture the night his life began to unravel after his knee gave way in the opening minutes of the 2017 Telstra Premiership season opener against the Wests Tigers.

He wanted to help.

''You don't embarrass greats like that,'' a dumbfounded Phil Gould said during Channel Nine's broadcast as Inglis heartbreakingly hobbled around ANZ Stadium for another 51 minutes before taking his place on the sidelines for what would be the remainder of the season.

Even the opposition felt guilty, with Tigers players admitting they went easy on him in fear of only making matters worse for the inspirational South Sydney skipper.

''I just wanted to be out there,'' Inglis told NRL.com as he continues his comeback.

''I didn’t think anything of it at the time because I’ve never done an injury like this. But looking back at it now, I was just a passenger out there for no reason.

''I've felt similar pain before. I thought it was the same as that. Looking back at it now, it wasn't the best idea. But the upside I could see was that I didn’t do any more damage to it. After the game I said to the doc, ‘I’ll be back in two weeks, I’ll be fine'.''

Greg Inglis after injuring his knee against Wests Tigers.
Greg Inglis after injuring his knee against Wests Tigers. ©NRL Photos

But it wasn’t. And now ''two weeks'' looks more like being 359 days as he eyes his return to rugby league in the February 24 Charity Shield clash against the St George Illawarra Dragons in Mudgee.

It's hard to talk about the Inglis road to recovery without talking about the physical and mental demons he has, and still has, to overcome.

They were intertwined. Inglis really began to struggle when rugby league was taken away from him because of his serious knee damage. Not that he knew it straight away.

''It just hit me all of a sudden,'' he said.

''Going through what I went through, looking back at it now, I think there was a week when I said to myself there’s definitely something not right here. After the Anzac Test in Canberra I came back here and told Richo and the club that this [rehab] was the best thing for me.

''You just know yourself. If you know yourself and you know your body, then you pick up on little things … as long as you pay attention to yourself. You can never take any day for granted. That's just the way it is. That’s the way everyone should be looking at their life.''

Souths have a few regrets. They’re comfortable Inglis didn’t make the injury worse by playing on. ''But now knowing what the injury was, in hindsight would have done things differently if we had our time again? No doubt,'' Richardson said.

Guilt ate away at Richardson for not seeing what was about to unfold. As the rugby league world feared they may have lost a superstar, Richardson knew there were greater concerns.

''It was very serious,'' Richardson said.

''I was more worried about losing Greg himself than losing him from the game. I was shocked. I was disappointed in myself that I hadn’t picked up on it. That I had no idea whatsoever. I said to him before, worry about yourself and your family - that’s your first priority in life. Football will fall into line if you're happy with where you are and what you’re doing.

''He's a good human being, Greg. He’s always the last one signing autographs. He’s always speaking to people around the place. The world has been a challenge for him. He's not superman. Everyone thinks he’s superman but he’s not. He doesn’t need to try to be.''

Inglis continues to undergo therapy on a weekly basis. “It’s not over yet,” Richardson says. “But he’s in a good place.”

Those in South Sydney’s inner sanctum can see a notable difference. He's happy. Well, as happy as you can be for a 30-year-old undergoing his first full pre-season since he was a teenager.

But the demeanour and wellbeing of Inglis isn’t the only major change at Redfern. The coach, Michael Maguire, one of Inglis’s closest friends, is gone.

Things couldn’t go on the way they were any longer at the Rabbitohs. In Inglis’s words: ''We hit a brick wall.''

From the outside, it looked as though trust was beginning to erode. Communication started breaking down. And the impact of having a strict disciplinarian calling the shots began to take its toll on some.

Maguire's methods were once exactly what the Rabbitohs needed in their pursuit of a drought-breaking premiership, but there was a belief from those in power that they no longer matched the position and requirements of the club.

''Everyone is different in their coaching methods,'' Inglis said of his former coach, who he regularly runs into since moving into his new Coogee home.

''One thing about Madge – he got South Sydney a premiership. You can’t take that away from what he's done here at the club. He has pretty much made South Sydney what it is today. That’s a credit to Madge and to the boys who have been here for a long time.

''For Madge to come here and deliver a premiership to this club, it’s one of the greatest things that's happened in rugby league for a long time.

''This is what people have to understand – Seebs (new coach Anthony Seibold) didn't take the job straight away. He went around and showed Madge the respect.

''He had a chat with Madge for a long period of time and that he decided to take the job. That's what people have to understand. That’s the respect shown towards Madge from the players and everyone else around here.''

Seibold has had plenty of conversations with Inglis since his appointment. The first revolved around the captaincy. The Rabbitohs saw the benefits in easing the burden on Inglis, but that conversation didn’t last long.

''I want to be captain of this club,'' Inglis told them.

''It's something I've taken responsibility for. If the team doesn't perform then that’s something I put my hand up for. It’s something I enjoy.''

The second port of call was to determine where he would fit into the coach’s plans. The suggestion after his injury was that in order to preserve his body, he would have to give up the No.1 jersey.

They discussed the option of moving to the centres or five-eighth, but both agreed that wasn’t where he was needed.

''I said to him 'where do you think I should play'. He said fullback and I was happy with that. I don't want to move anywhere else, to be honest. I still feel I can give 100 per cent at fullback.''

Despite Alex Johnston showing patches of brilliance in his stint at fullback, South Sydney weren't the same team without Inglis out the back.

When Inglis limped off in the opening game, any hopes of a finals appearance all but vanished as he disappeared up the players' tunnel.

The Rabbitohs slumped to 12th for the second consecutive year.

''When he plays fullback, defensively we’re a better team,'' Seibold said.

''Something as simple as getting our defensive splits organised, your fullback is the captain of your defence. Having his experience in getting those numbers right, people at home don’t see that. But as a coach and as a team it's important to us.

''You ask the question, is he going to be able to handle the loads? Well, we’re confident in the way we train here and exposing him to high-speed running, exposing him to change of direction and exposing him to repeat-effort areas, we’re very confident that we can get him in the right physical condition to be able to handle the loads of a fullback.

''One thing we haven’t done with Greg is rush him. He’s got the goal and we’ve got the goal as a club that we’d love to see him have half a game in the Charity Shield against the Dragons.

''That’s the goal. He still has plenty of work to do. His welfare is the most important thing. When he's ticked off all the boxes and progressed through the stages he needs to, we’ll make a decision on where and when he plays.''

Some players can take two years to recover from the mental and physical scars of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Even the very good players struggle to rediscover their mojo in the first year back from such a serious injury.

Greg Inglis is nearing a return to the NRL.
Greg Inglis is nearing a return to the NRL. ©rabbitohs.com.au

But the Bunnies have no doubts Inglis can return to the player that once lit up the competition with his size, speed and strength.

''I actually think if he's good as we think he is both mentally and physically, 12 months off won’t have been bad for him,'' Seibold said.

''He's resolved things in his life and he has given his body a rest when he hasn't had a rest for so long.

''It's a rejuvenated GI and he's annoying me at the moment. But it is great to see him like this. I think it will prolong his career. He’s been playing 30-odd games a year for so long.

“I have no doubt he can get back to his best. He's a champion. He's a winner. He wants to beat you at cards and marbles. Hopefully he can lead Souths to another premiership.''

Regardless of how he comes back, Inglis's legacy is virtually set in stone. Some say he will be remembered in the same light as Clive Churchill, considering his contribution to delivering the foundation club’s long-awaited 21st premiership.

But what life after football holds, and how he will be remembered, aren't things that concern Inglis anymore.

''I did [worry] about two years ago, then I just stopped worrying about that,'' Inglis said.

''You're only here for a short time. You can worry about that after … People will think what they want when I retire. I can’t put words in people's mouths.

''People have to make their mind up. It’s not up to me.''

*This first appeared on NRL.com