By STEVE MASCORD
JASON Ryles is going home.
Back when the Melbourne Storm prop was playing juniors at the Illawarra Steelers around the end of the last century, the era of premiership players going back to play in the bush was already almost over.
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was common. Some genuine stars spent most of their careers in the bush. Hell, Rex Wright and Phil Duke were picked straight from the country by NSW (not to mention the likes of Rohan Hancock in Queensland) in our lifetimes.
But since the Super League War, pro rugby league players have earned so much, and country clubs have struggled to such an extent, that the practice just about died out.
It just wasn’t worth it for anyone concerned.
“But it’s sort of coming back in the Illawarra comp,” Ryles, 34, tells League Week. “There’s Nathan Fien going to Thirroul, fellas like Chris Leikvoll and Reece Simmonds playing as well.”
In 2014, Ryles will join them – at Illawarra Wests, the club where his journey to 15 Test appearances for Australia began. You thought Ryles was retiring but really, he’s just reeling in the years.
“I started off talking to Collies (Collegians) about going there and getting a job as well,” says the 194 cm, 116 kg front rower.
“Then my junior club got involved and it just seemed a perfect fit. For the first year I’ll be captain coach, and then just coach.
“Yes, it looks like I’m going to have to sack myself! I’ll do it kindly. There’s certainly no job security in coaching!”
Ryles’ motivations are not just to keep the football party going another year or two. He believes he can become a top level coach and is willing to start at the very bottom, rather than raise his hand for an NRL assistant’s post.
“I did have a talk with (Melbourne football manager) Frank Ponissi about taking a job at the Storm,” he reveals.
“But we’ve had a little girl and there’s another on the way and Melbourne is a bit far away from our support network in Wollongong.
“We’ve got a house in Towradgi but it’s in such disrepair it might blow over at any minute! But at least we can go back there.”
You don’t captain-coach Illawarra Wests fulltime, of course. Ryles is talking to True Blue Chemicals about a “real job”. “I’ve been pretty lucky, I haven’t really had to do what I would call work,” he says.
“We have days off, time off, and now I’m going to have to get used to going to work in the morning and coming home at night and being exhausted but I’ll manage.
“I think being down here Melbourne has given me a real grounding for a work ethic.”
It’s a matter of starting at the bottom, the former NSW prop says. “I’m finished a player now,” he explains.
“If I want to be a coach, I have to go back and pay my dues and worth my way up. I gotta get a real job because I’ve got a wife and kids. I’m looking forward to all that and to working with young players.”
In the meantime, Ryles hopes that other NRL players will be encouraged to put something back into lower tiers of rugby league when their time is up.
It needn’t be a case of NRL, Super League or oblivion.
“I don’t know why more people don’t do it,” he said. “It’s not for the money – but I hope it does become more common.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK