Rugby league can be an unforgiving business if form deserts a player, with recent flavours of the month, premiership heroes and representative stalwarts thrust under a harsh spotlight if those high standards are not consistently maintained.
But on the same token, the game loves a redemption story. Jamie Soward’s renaissance at Penrith in 2014, after things went sour at St George Illawarra last year, was one of the NRL era’s most remarkable – and popular – comebacks. Gary Freeman, Preston Campbell, Manu Vatuvei, Cliff Lyons, James Maloney, Jarryd Hayne and Todd Carney have all enjoyed stunning 12-month turnarounds during their careers after seemingly being thrown on the scrapheap, or enduring a torrent of criticism in an unhappy season.
Another noteworthy tale of redemption also played out this year in the shape of maligned forward Adam Blair. Pilloried as a high-priced flop after joining Wests Tigers in 2012 and losing his place in the New Zealand Test side, Blair gradually returned to form at club level this season before playing a starring role in the Kiwis’ Four Nations triumph.
The 28-year-old capped the year by signing a three-year contract with the Brisbane Broncos, announced just three days after New Zealand’s euphoric final victory over Australia.
Blair was one of the NRL’s hottest properties just a few years ago, a key component of the Melbourne Storm machine that won the 2009 grand final and maintained their heavyweight status through the horrors of the following season’s salary cap scandal. He was regarded as a leader in the Kiwis set-up, featuring in the 2008 World Cup (in which he scored a match-sealing try) and 2010 Four Nations successes, the latter as vice-captain to Benji Marshall.
But after accepting a massive four-year contract to join Marshall at the Tigers in 2012 – with the club controversially shedding the likes of Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita to get him there – it went a bit pear-shaped for Blair.
His tenure at the Storm ended in unfortunate circumstances, rubbed out of the finals for his role in the infamous ‘Battle of Brookvale’ – and specifically his sideline brawl with Glenn Stewart after the pair was sin-binned – in the penultimate round of 2011.
But the prop/back-rower’s first season with the joint venture was an even greater disappointment.
For whatever reason, his impact and work-rate were down, and he became arguably the most criticised player in the competition. Every mistake or quiet performance was magnified by the formerly high-flying Tigers’ rapid decline – and magnified by Blair’s huge pay-packet.
Blair, a veteran of 24 Tests, then lost his place in the New Zealand side in 2013, watching the World Cup at home after another underwhelming season for the cellar-dwelling Tigers.
But in a rejuvenated young side this season, with the likes of countryman and soon-to-be Test teammate Martin Taupau bolstering the pack, Blair showed signs of his dynamic best and drastically increased his output. A surprise Test recall followed in May after Jared Waerea-Hargreaves was stunningly omitted and he finished the year strongly at club level despite the injury-ravaged Tigers’ fadeout.
Four Nations selection was a formality, while the unavailability of Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa propelled Blair into the starting front-row, where he charged, tackled and offloaded his way back into the consciousness of rugby league fans on a larger scale with a string of superb Test displays.
Despite the disappointments of 2012-13, Blair never doubted that he could return to the code’s heights.
“It’s been tough, but I’ve worked really hard. I’ve always known I could get myself back in, I just needed to work my way back into [form],” Blair said after the Kiwis’ narrow win over Samoa.
“Being in Sydney has been a bit different, but I’ve always had big belief in what I could do for the team, and it just shows that all the hard work that you do pays off if you want it enough.”
The big, aggressive forward has clearly revelled in being back in the New Zealand set-up, although he did not feel any extra pressure to shoulder the load despite the absence of some high-profile props.
“It’s always so good to be back in camp, and I think it’s about enjoying the moments I have left in the Kiwi jersey and making the most of things,” Blair continued.
“I’m just here to enjoy myself, and if that means I’m doing a good job for the team, I’m happy to do it.
“I work hard for my brothers, I do whatever it takes, so I’m happy to just go out there and do that for the team.”
The Samoa clash was a particular highlight for Blair, with the match played at Toll Stadium in his home town of Whangarei – a historic first for New Zealand’s northernmost city. Blair is the region’s greatest rugby league product, and a junior competition was been named in his honour several seasons ago.
“It reminded of when I was a little kid. That’s what I tried to do today, go out and have a bit of fun,” he said of the return to his old stomping ground.
“Growing up in Whangarei, and being able to play on a park that I watched some of my idols when I was playing rugby was something pretty special.
“I used to watch the Northland Taniwhas (rugby union side) play, I sat up on the hill. The memories I have are that when the games were finished we were allowed to run onto the park … it’s a place I love – it’s so peaceful and relaxing when you get back to Whangarei.”
Inherently likable, softly spoken and polite off the field, Blair’s perseverance and attitude has been rewarded by the approach from incoming Broncos coach Wayne Bennett, who worked with Blair during the 2008 World Cup campaign.
The front-row department has been viewed as an area of weakness and questionable depth in Brisbane for a couple of seasons – and Bennett immediately cleared the decks upon his return, releasing prop trio Ben Hannant, Martin Kennedy and David Hala.
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Young Tigers teammate James Gavet had already been recruited to bolster the Broncos’ forward stocks, but the experienced Blair has almost certainly been lured to the club to partner the bullish Josh McGuire in the starting front-row.
The Tigers and coach Jason Taylor graciously granted Blair a release from the final year of his contract, and the 192-game veteran appears determined to make the most of this opportunity and rediscover the form of his halcyon days in Melbourne.
He has family ties in Brisbane through his wife and also spent several years in the city previously (he arrived at the Storm via Queensland Cup feeder club Norths), and after struggling to settle in Sydney, all the enforcer’s stars are now aligning for him to re-emerge as one of the NRL’s elite forwards.
Blair will provide excellent stability during the arduous Origin period in the Broncos’ representative-stacked pack and is potentially one of the buys of 2015. This redemption story may still have a few chapters left to be written.