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'I went to training on Thursday and there was Sam Thaiday all kitted up'

When news broke of Queensland State of Origin legends Sam Thaiday and Justin Hodges coming out of retirement, the story almost broke the internet.

The impact of their return was enormous. It created such a buzz around the Rugby League Brisbane fraternity, but their contribution to help shape the Albany Creek Crushers was most important.

This transformation, along with the club's willingness and persistence to defy the COVID-19 pandemic, was the catalyst behind being named this year's QRL South East Club of the Year.

It was a whirlwind season for the north Brisbane club's first year of senior footy, best recounted by NRL development officer James Geurtjens, who never expected to line up in the front row alongside Thaiday when he first got involved.

Thaiday lines up for Albany Creek Crushers

In fact, the Dutch international - who happily admits he has retired too many times - only ended up lacing up the boots to help out after initially being happy to just run water.

"I just wanted to be a sports trainer or something because I just wanted to get out and do something because I just had a baby, so I basically wanted somewhere that I could have a thirsty Thursday beer," Geurtjens said.

"So I talked to Marty Scott who is the vice-president and he said to come down. We were struggling early on to get more than six to eight players, so before you knew it, I was deadest playing… there was no doubt about that.

"We sort of had to recruit our friends and family to have enough for a team. We just had enough for Round 1, but then COVID hit.

"Then when we came back, we were back to that six to eight core group as COVID scared a few of our the new players away, but we managed to get enough players for Round 1 again.

"We didn’t have a first aid officer, so [club president] Justin Hodges put his hand up to do the job.

"Just having him there helping out and giving the boys advice was huge, especially for the young fellas with an Origin legend coming on and giving them some tips.

"We were struggling early on because we had a lot of guys who hadn’t played much senior footy before and experience-wise, we were hoping to get a few boys who had played a bit of BRL or maybe had played a bit of Division 1 for a long time.

"Obviously with Hodgo being involved, I remember I came to training on one of the Thursdays and there was Sam Thaiday all kitted up in his Crushers gear.

"That was a pretty big for a lot of the players. At that time, we were struggling to get the whole team to training and get everyone motivated.

"We played that weekend with Thaiday… I remember posting up [on the Crushers' Facebook page] that he was playing, and I think we had something like 50,000 views and 1000 people follow us.

"It went absolutely berko. Even when he played the first game at Redlands, usually you get sprayed from the can ban, but they were yelling out… ‘We love you Sam! Thanks for playing… you’re a legend'.

"Everyone frothed him coming back.

"The following week, we had so many people contacting us to ask about training and we had 25 people at the next training session. The most amount of people we had before that was around 12. They just wanted to be amongst him [Thaiday] which is fair enough.

"It was pretty cool that he came to every training session and had good banter with everybody… especially for some of the young fellas who had grown up loving the Broncos.

"They were a bit nervous around him, but it was a big deal for them."

After enough persistence, Hodges eventually agreed to swap his blue trainer shirt for a jersey.

"We were hassling him a lot… and he kept saying no... but we had the Down Syndrome Cup against Brothers where they were raising money for charity, so he decided to put the boots on then," Geurtjens said.

"That was a bit surreal for a lot of us… when you’re getting ready with a few Origin legends.

Geurtjens with Justin Hodges.
Geurtjens with Justin Hodges.

"Even though he didn't play too many minutes, he still managed to fold a prop in half.

"The team definitely improved heaps from having them both involved, and it was also great for the local competition.

"Everywhere that Thaiday and Hodgo went, they got record numbers."

The impact the two Origin legends had on the club wasn't just felt in the senior men's team.

With Hodges taking on the club president role this season, his and Thaiday's impact to assist the greater committee was incredible - especially on the club's junior teams, according to volunteer coach Leah Bennett, who nominated Albany Creek in this year's Queensland Rugby League community awards.

"This year's committee have gone above and beyond to ensure this club remains open," Bennett said.

"They have given their all for these kids to have a place to come and feel accepted and be part of a family community.

"No matter what is going on in their lives or at school, they have a team, friends and a club that do everything they can to support them.

"This club is so important for families and I think the recognition is deserved for the Albany Creek Crushers and their volunteers.

"They've overcome so many obstacles to become more than just a football club... it has become a family where you feel welcome and the smiles are infectious."

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, Geurtjens believes a lot of credit should go to Scott for his vision to create a pathway from under 6 to seniors.

The Albany Creek Crushers Division 1 team.
The Albany Creek Crushers Division 1 team.

"He really pushed to get the seniors team up and going. They had to do some convincing to make it happen," Geurtjens said.

"What was happening was, a lot of the times kids would get to under 16s and then leave because there was no senior team, so there was no pathway.

"We found a lot of kids who weren’t destined to play at a high level just quit rugby league.

"By having a senior team now, we have a great foundation for next year.

"We’re going to have a heap more kids in the game that can stay with Albany Creek and push up and play under 18s which all comes from the hard work this year.

"It’s been very good for the Crushers and it’s also good for rugby league in north Brisbane.

"It came together and hopefully we’ve created something special."