Jason Nightingale: Unique, awkward and loyal

A tribute to retiring Dragons’ great Jason Nightingale – a true rugby league gentleman and one of my favourite players of all time.

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Picture credit: Mark Kolbe

With rugby league well and truly entrenched in the era of professionalism, players like Jason Nightingale become increasingly rare commodities. In the age of back-ended deals, third-party sponsorship and regularly broken contracts, it’s somewhat heart-warming to know that a story like that of Jason Nightingale’s can still occur.

After suffering a dislocated elbow on the weekend against the Bulldogs and with the Dragons’ title hopes in tatters, a 4-6 week layoff means that we have likely seen the last of Jason Nightingale. As such, it seems an appropriate time to tribute the man they call ‘Gypsy’ – the Dragons’ third-most capped player and third highest try-scorer, and the last of their 2010 premiership heroes.

Jason Nightingale has many strings to his bow. He began as just a junior who was good enough to make grade for his local side. He will finish off as a one-club player, and possibly as his club’s equal most-capped player (if the Dragons make the grand final and injury doesn’t strike him down).

Along the way he became a prolific try-scorer. He became a premiership-winner, scoring two tries in the process. He became a test player. He became a World-Cup (squad member – didn’t play in the final) and Four Nations winner.

But before all that he was just a skinny kid playing for Renown United on the weekend. For those who aren’t aware, here is a brief recap on the origins of Jason Nightingale.

The early years

Jason Nightingale was born in Paddington in Sydney in 1986. Due to his New Zealand parents, he spent much of his youth moving back and forth between Sydney and New Zealand, before finally settling in Australia at the age of 13.

In Sydney he played his junior rugby league for Renown United in the local St George district competition – the same club which produced both Reg and Mark Gasnier.

A standout for Renown United, Nightingale quickly graduated into the Dragons’ system, playing Harold Matthews, SG Ball and Jersey Flegg. He played in the Dragons’ 2005 Jersey Flegg-winning side along side Brett and Josh Morris, coached by future first-grade mentor Steve Price.

As a starring member of the Dragons’ junior side, Nightingale set himself up for a promising future at the club.

First grade

Jason Nightingale made his first-grade in round 8 of the 2007 season against the Panthers. Dragons experienced a terrible injury crisis and even worse results that year – it was a difficult time for anyone to debut. 

Long-time skipper and five-eighth Trent Barrett had left the club for Wigan. Coach Nathan Brown selected Mark Gasnier, Ben Hornby and Jason Ryles as co-captains, while Gasnier spent the entire off-season training at five-eighth to replace Barrett in this capacity as well.

The Dragons had also lost some serious muscle in the forwards, with Shaun Timmins retiring and Luke Bailey moving to the newly formed Gold Coast Titans. Dean Young was also missing due to a long-term knee injury he picked up in late 2006, which would hamper the remainder of his career.

The Dragons had made the preliminary final the previous two seasons. Despite this, many experts were writing them off before a ball had even been kicked. 

When Mark Gasnier tore his pectoral muscle in the annual pre-season Charity Shield fixture it was sign of things to come for the Dragons. Ben Hornby and Jason Ryles both had stints on the sideline for minor injuries, meaning that the likes of Matt Cooper and Ben Creagh both had to captain the side on occasion.

The Dragons used 32 players in 2007 – the most of any team in the NRL that year. Many debutants were used – players like Josh Morris, Chris Houston, Danny Wicks, Rangi Chase and Chase Stanley showed promise in patches, although the team as a whole was not doing well. 

Other debutants were very frustrating to watch. So many dropped balls, missed tackles and stupid penalties. This brings me to Jason Nightingale.

I recall his debut very vividly. It was round 8 and the Dragons were playing Penrith. Coming off a 5-match losing streak there was not a lot of hope for young Dragons’ fans like myself.

It was a Friday night, I remember arriving at my Grandmother’s house with my parents just in time to see the lineups. As soon as Nightingale’s name popped up on the screen I thought “oh God, not another one of these bloody useless rookies!”

The game started. I remember Nightingale’s first touch – dropped ball off a kick return 20m out from the try-line. I remember his second touch – same mistake in the same part of the field. You could imagine my hatred for Jason Nightingale at this point!

The Dragons won the game and Nightingale scored on debut. But my thoughts at the time were still that he should never play first grade again.

Despite my extremely well-informed rugby league opinion (I was 13 at the time), Nathan Brown obviously thought he knew better than me and kept picking Nightingale. And while the team was inconsistent, Nightingale kept on putting in performances that won fans over very quickly (myself included).

The way he would go up for bombs was inspiring. At just 183cm he’s certainly not short, but by rugby league winger standards he’s somewhat vertically challenged.

Yet he would regularly out leap the best and tallest wingers in the game, and he simply wouldn’t drop the ball. Ever. Those two silly errors in his debut were clearly the exceptions to the rule. He would gain such hang time when diffusing bombs – it was extremely courageous on his part.

What fascinated me more about Nightingale was his ability to make good meters despite his diminutive stature, and at a time when wingers being built like second-rowers was just becoming a thing.

Even at his physical peak, Nightingale was never one of the quickest or strongest wingers in the game. It was his unique and frankly awkward running style, coupled with endless determination, which saw him break tackles and make ground when he had absolutely no right to.

With all these positives to his game, it was clear from quite early on that Jason Nightingale was going to be around in first grade for a long time.

Establishing himself

After an impressive debut season in which he scored 7 tries in 16 games, Jason Nightingale cemented his spot in first grade in 2008, playing 24 games and scoring 13 tries. He also made his test debut for New Zealand in the Centenary Test against Australia at the SCG.

Despite his progress, the arrival of Wendell Sailor at the Dragons threw a spanner into the works for all of the Dragons’ outside backs as a player of his reputation was always going to take one of their spots.

That player was initially Brett Morris, who dropped out of the starting side in late 2008 to make way for Sailor. This continued into 2009, with Sailor and Nightingale the Dragons’ starting wingers with Morris languishing in reserve grade.

However, an injury to Nightingale saw Morris return to the side, and with Morris and Sailor both in try-scoring form, Nightingale couldn’t even get a look in and played much of his football off the bench. 

It wasn’t until 2010, when Sailor retired that Nightingale was able to finally establish himself as a bona fide first-grader, and cement his place in the Dragons’ starting side. Since then, he has been one of the first players picked for the Dragons whenever fit.

3 October 2010

In 2009 the Dragons became the first team of the NRL era to win the minor premiership and then be knocked out of the finals in straight sets. It was this major disappointment that fuelled their desire to be the best in 2010.

The Dragons’ premiership success was built around their lethal left side. It was Hornby going either short ball to Creagh through a hole or out the back to Boyd. From there Boyd would have Cooper and Morris outside him, or the option to grubber into the in-goal for a repeat set. There were plenty of tries on offer for Cooper and Morris in 2010.

Despite the left side being the focal point of their attack, Nightingale played a vital role for the Dragons that year. He made the equal most appearances for the club with 26 for the season along with Ben Creagh. He also scored 14 tries – second most behind Brett Morris with 20.

Nightingale’s role in attack became more prominent with the mid-season return from French rugby of prodigal son Mark Gasnier. Nightingale received few opportunities playing outside Beau Scott. But Gasnier’s return made the Dragons more of a threat on both sides of the field, which brought Nightingale’s involvement up.

Nightingale may not have scored as many tries as Brett Morris, but he arguably scored more important ones – 3 in particular late in the finals series. 

The first was in the preliminary final against Wests Tigers. Nightingale began the break deep in his own half by getting outside opposite Lote Tuqiri, before offloading to Mark Gasnier who was stopped 10m short of the tryline. 

The next play, the Tigers’ fractured defensive line proved no match for Jason Nightingale, who crashed over after a beautiful inside ball from Dean Young. This try and the subsequent conversion locked the scores up at 12-all. The Dragons went on to win 13-12 to qualify for the Grand Final.

The other two tries came in the second half of the Grand Final against the Roosters, while the Dragons were down 8-6. Both times an early cut-out pass from Darius Boyd saw Nightingale bamboozle a young Joey Leilua. 

These tries swung the momentum in favour of St George Illawarra, as they stormed home with 5 unanswered second-half tries (including Nightingale’s two) to win the game 32-8.

Without Nightingale’s involvement in those final two games, it’s hard to fathom the Dragons winning the premiership. Although there are several players about whom you could say the same, it doesn’t diminish Nightingale’s involvement in the slightest. He is a true premiership hero in every sense of the word.

The heart and soul

It has been a tough time for St George Illawarra since the premiership triumph in 2010. In the 8 years since then they have made the finals just 3 times (2011, 2015 and 2018), and have not made it past the second week of the finals.

Players like Mark Gasnier, Matt Cooper, Ben Hornby, Dean Young and Ben Creagh have all retired. Others like Brett Morris, Trent Merrin and Matt Prior left for greener pastures. There were other years – like this one – where they started well and faded badly towards the end. There were also truly lean years in which the Dragons barely looked like winning a game.

But through it all, Nightingale has been one of the club’s best and most consistent players. I can certainly recall games where things perhaps didn’t go his way. But I cannot recall a game where I questioned his effort, nor can I recall a time where he has chosen the easy option over the courageous one on the field. He’s always been able to hold his head up high in my eyes.

While it’s true that his form has dipped somewhat this season, it’s a credit to him that he recognized this and decided to retire at the right time. His form certainly dipped, but never to the point where he was being picked in first-grade purely for nostalgia. Simply put, he’s always been able to justify his spot in the side – even at his worst.

His attitude has always been club first. There were many times he could have walked away from the Dragons for more money yet decided to stay for less. 2015 was particularly worrying when he was offered a lot of coin to join the likes of Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck at the Warriors.

His value to the club is illustrated by the story behind his first time captaining them. It was early 2015 and regular skipper Ben Creagh was out injured. Benji Marshall was to captain the side until a player vote – inspired by Marshall – saw Nightingale end up with the ‘C’ next to his name.

The end of an era

As the last player remaining from the 2010 premiership triumph, Jason Nightingale’s recently announced retirement marks the end of an era for the St George Illawarra Dragons.

With the respect he has commanded amongst the playing group for many years, it’s fitting that he is going out as a one-club player – few players deserve the honour more than he does.

While it’s certainly sad to see him bow out in an out-of-form, albeit finals-bound Dragons’ side with a dislocated elbow, Nightingale can be extremely proud of what he has achieved in his 11-year career. 

To be a one-club player at your junior club is incredibly rare in 2018. To be one who achieved as much as Nightingale is even rarer. 

lf of Dragons’ fans and non-Dragons’ fans alike, thank you, Jason, for all the great memories. You have been one of my favourite players for a very long time, and you have been involved in some of my most-cherished rugby league moments. Congratulations on an amazing career and enjoy retirement.

What are your favourite memories from the long and storied career of Jason Nightingale? Let us know in the comments below.

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