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Legend Q&A: David Shillington

From feeling like "a bit of an imposter" and copping a "scary" spray from Brad Fittler as a rookie to being part of a State of Origin dynasty, David Shillington achieved more than he ever imagined growing up in Brisbane.

After starting out with his school friends and siblings in the Brisbane Brothers juniors, Shillington said he was never a teenage superstar and questioned whether he would kick on to the elite level.

He did that and more - the prop's 215 games for the Roosters, Raiders and Titans between 2005 and '16 were the sum of a great career.

He also featured in four successful Origin series during Queensland's eight-year streak, pulling on the Maroons jumper eight times, and represented Australia on 14 occasions.

Shillington spoke to NRL.com about his role as an enforcer and getting in fights, the tension between NSW and Queensland players in Australian camps and his "ethical" call to retire.

Legend Q&A: David Shillington

So how did a kid from Queensland end up making his NRL debut for the Roosters?

Well, I almost signed with the Raiders when I finished grade 12. But I didn't want to make that move down there. And the Roosters said, 'Don't move down straight away, we'll put you on a scholarship and you can play for our feeder club up in Brisbane at Redcliffe, see how you go next year and we might bring you down after that'.

That was a bit more enticing for me to ease my way into moving away from home and into the system. Because at the time I wasn't really one of the teenage superstars or anything, so I wasn't quite sure if I was going to have a football career. Thankfully that one year of grace up here at Redcliffe Dolphins was magnificent for my development and I ended up kicking on with the Roosters after that.

Was it tough when you first came to Sydney?

It was. It was exciting, but obviously living away from home and going straight into the Roosters' full-time squad with the likes of Brad Fittler and that calibre of player, you feel like a bit of an imposter I guess and not up to it. I still remember one of my first training sessions. I wasn't up the front of the pack for one of the fitness sessions and Freddy gave me a bit of a revving and I almost jumped out of my skin, because I was like, 'If Brad Fittler talks, I should listen'. It was pretty scary for a young kid, but very exciting too.

In your third game, you had a fight with Rabbitohs centre Shannon Hegarty that is immortalised on YouTube. What do you remember from that?

I think I remember trying to take it to him and thinking that he's a senior player and I wanted to be dominant. It just obviously went a little bit wrong and he took a bit of offence to that - and I didn't want to back down either. Next minute I got a few punches on me and I think I threw a few haymakers that didn't connect and it was all over. A fairly typical rugby league fight back in the day. It all happens too fast and you barely connect a punch and you feel a bit silly after it.

David Shillington representing Queensland in State of Origin.
David Shillington representing Queensland in State of Origin. ©NRL Photos

You threw hands with Paul Gallen in 2008 too. Did you see yourself as being an enforcer?

I didn't go around looking for trouble so to speak, but I guess I had it drilled into me from Ricky Stuart as a coach and then even Brad Fittler as a coach that the role of a front-rower is to dominate. It's to bend the line back when you run, protect your teammates, don't take any crap. That was how I viewed it then. But to be quite fair, I just didn't like people standing over the top of me. And when that happened with Shannon Hegarty or Paul Gallen - it sounds ridiculous to say it - but they started it!

Former Raiders prop David Shillington.
Former Raiders prop David Shillington. ©NRL Photos

You decided to move to Canberra in 2009. Was their approach to you as a schoolboy a factor in that?

It was. They were one of my favourite teams when I was a kid, because they were one of the guns back then, the Green Machine. So that played a part in it. Neil Henry was the coach when I signed with them but he ended up going to Townsville and Dave Furner took over ... Dave was one of my favourite players as a kid, so that was exciting to be coached by him, who I held so much respect for. A few things weighed into it about which team I loved as a kid and who the coach was. But then just the opportunity of going down to that side and setting myself up for the next part of my career.

What are your memories from being part of such a dominant Queensland side?

Overwhelmed by the talent in that team for starters. You talk about obviously your big names like your Smiths and Cronks and Slaters, but then - well, I think he's a big name as well - Nate Myles and so on. One of the greatest Queensland players ever, really, Mylesy. I also think of people like Mal Meninga as coach. He was just incredibly influential and inspiring and he brought that team together so well. And then someone like Steve Walters as a manager. He left no stone unturned to create an environment where the boys had the best chance of succeeding. They had the right accommodation, food, support staff, schedule, and all they had to do was come in and perform. So from the talent of the players to Mal as a coach and Steve as a manager, it was just a fantastic formula for success.

David Shillington hits it up for the Roosters.
David Shillington hits it up for the Roosters. ©NRL Photos

You must have loved playing for Australia given you won 13 of 14 Tests?

I did. I certainly wasn't the lucky charm for all those wins. Once again, I was surrounded by fantastic players and a great coach too. I think really highly of Tim Sheens. He had a tough job of bringing together quite a volatile sort of relationship between the Queensland and NSW players. But he did that successfully: he was a master of storytelling and activities to bring the team together. And he's really straightforward and honest with you as a coach, too, which most players appreciate. To get to go on tours over to England and New Zealand and play for Australia and have some good wins, it was a fantastic experience.

So there was real tension between the NSW and Queensland guys in camps because of the Maroons' dominance?

Well, there was nothing open like that. There wasn't any openly intense moments or anything. For myself, leading into the 2009 tour - that was my first Australian tour - game three in the State of Origin was when poor old Pricey [Maroons prop Steve Price] got knocked out and there was all that drama at the end of the game. It kind of derailed the whole game, what happened there.

To think I was going to go into camp with people like Brett White and Paul Gallen, who were the opposing enforcers and a big part of all that drama in game three, I thought, 'I can't even shake their hands, let alone play footy with them'. But you get into camp and they were fantastic fellas and everyone's able to leave that stuff back in Origin and play some good footy together as part of the Australian team.

It was quite funny to think, 'how am I going to shake these guys' hands?' then to a couple of weeks later to just get along with them and they're lovely fellas and we all win games together.

David Shillington playing for Australia against Great Britain.
David Shillington playing for Australia against Great Britain. ©NRL Photos

After spending seven years at Canberra and captaining the club, why did you decide to move to the Titans in 2016?

Just that desire to come home to Queensland. I'd been away for 14 years since after school. I'd had two kids by then and I was really craving coming home. There aren't a lot of options in the NRL to play in Queensland - we've only got three teams up here. The Titans were going through a rebuilding phase and they saw me as a good leader to bring up. Unfortunately I didn't get to play half as much as I wanted to for the Titans - I got a bit old and injured and it didn't work out as well [as planned]. But I'll always be thankful the Titans brought me home and I could make some sort of contribution.

Former Raiders star David Shillington.
Former Raiders star David Shillington. ©NRL Photos

Was it a tough call to retire in 2016 or did your body make the decision for you?

It was almost like an ethical decision. I probably could have kept playing in some respect. People sign new contracts and carry on playing nursing all sorts of injuries. And my shoulder was just absolute cactus. It was awful. I couldn't tackle, I couldn't do any push-ups, I couldn't do anything, really. I had offers to go overseas and also a couple of NRL clubs too which were looking for another number in their squad. But I would've stayed on the sidelines for half the year, three quarters of the year the next year if I made it on the field at all. So I couldn't consciously have done that to myself and to a new team. I ended up retiring from the Titans and calling it a day, which was a little bit premature in my mind. Of course, you want to play on for many more years. But I had a fantastic run at the same time.

There's plenty to choose from, but is there one moment in your career that you're most proud of?

Not so much a single moment, but that 2010 Origin series - Queensland won three-nil - I was fortunate enough to receive one of the players' player awards. I think it was game two, maybe. It's one of the highest honours you can receive I guess. To be so dominant at Origin level for Queensland, that's a tough task for any team to do and we did it really well. I remember Locky [Darren Lockyer] said after game two, 'Yep, we've won the series, but you know, the chance to win a clean sweep is pretty rare so let's make the most of it'. We went out there and we did that. Locky wasn't one to say too much but when he said it we all listened. It made for a really special 2010 series.