Matt Ballin was one of the NRL’s great ironmen during his nine-season tenure at Manly.
The Kingaroy product debuted for the Sea Eagles in 2007 and played 182 consecutive first-grade games from 2008-14 – the third-longest streak in premiership history.
The industrious rake won two grand finals in maroon and white, while he remains the only player besides Cameron Smith to wear the Queensland No.9 jumper in the last 40 Origin encounters, making his sole appearance in the 2010 series opener.
But the stalwart was part of Manly’s controversial cleanout at the end of 2015, and he made the curious call to join Wests Tigers, where club legend and NSW Origin fixture Robbie Farah had held a mortgage on the dummy-half role for more than a decade.
Ballin looked set to play the unwitting pawn – albeit a high-performing one – in the ongoing feud between Farah and Tigers coach Jason Taylor, who seemed hell-bent on ousting the deposed skipper from Tigertown.
But injury prevented Ballin from playing a significant role for the young Tigers side in 2016. An ACL rupture that ended his Sea Eagles tenure two games early ruled him out of the opening couple of months of the competition, while concussion and then another knee injury restricted to him to just two interchange appearances for his new club.
“The biggest thing I probably learned out of last season is patience, and that injuries take time to heal and not to rush things,” Ballin told Wests Tigers Media.
“The first rehab there was a few issues and hiccups all the way along, it always felt like it was irritated a fair bit.
“We started well then had a few setbacks, then I eventually ended up playing and reinjuring the ACL and needing a second surgery, so that was pretty devastating for me, coming to a new club and looking forward to playing some consistent footy.”
2nd run on the alter-G completed.Awesome to be back running and looking forward to 2017 season! pic.twitter.com/Qk1aeJkSPM
— Matt Ballin (@mattballin9) October 7, 2016
It was unfamiliar territory for the rake, who played 217 of a possible 222 games in the previous nine seasons, but Ballin shapes as an integral part of Taylor’s 2017 plans after Farah, Dene Halatau and Manaia Cherrington all departed in the off-season.
The unassuming 33-year-old will vie for the hooking duties with Kiwi utility Matt McIlwrick and young gun Jacob Liddle, but the experience, toughness and composure Ballin provides puts him in the box-seat for first crack at the key position.
“I felt like I contributed in those games (in 2016), but obviously it wasn’t enough footy and I want to be a bigger part of the team this year and play a lot more games,” he said.
Ballin was a steadying influence for young Manly halves pairing Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans as they found their feet on the NRL stage before developing into superstars, and precocious Tigers playmakers Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks will be looking for the same sort of guidance from the veteran.
After a successful recovery from his most recent setback, Ballin is on track for a mouth-watering duel against former teammate Farah in the Tigers’ Round 1 showdown against South Sydney, provided Farah makes it back from a pectoral injury suffered during pre-Christmas training.
“This one feels a lot better, the knee feels really stable. (Compared to) the same time last year, I’m probably a couple of months ahead of that timeframe.”
— 3Novices Australia (@3novicesSydney) December 19, 2016
See what Ballin had to say about his two lengthy layoffs, his desire to contribute to the Tigers’ cause this year and the promising team’s prospects of success in 2017.