Paul Gallen’s presence alone will persuade most Queenslanders to jump on the Melbourne Storm bandwagon ahead of Sunday’s NRL grand final.
The Cronulla captain has become the perpetual villain north of the border during his reign as NSW skipper, detested for his outspoken and provocative public persona, along with his aggressive and uncompromising style of play.
But Gallen is a hero in his home state – particularly in the Sutherland Shire – for his fearless leadership, his tireless performances and for unapologetically wearing his heart on his sleeve.
While some may death-ride the 35-year-old’s bid to steer the long-suffering Sharks to a maiden premiership when they take on the Melbourne Storm on Sunday, few players are as deserving of the honour.
Having broken into first grade in 2001, Gallen will line up for the 279th time in Cronulla colours this weekend – breaking Jason Taylor’s all-time record for most appearances before making a grand final debut.
Pigeonholed as a firebrand after a couple of unsavoury incidents in 2008, Gallen’s reputation took a battering when he was accused of racially vilifying Dragons forward Micky Paea the following season.
He used rival Queensland forward Nate Myles as a punching bag in the 2013 Origin series opener, infamously described Maroons supporters as “two-heads” and became the face of the Sharks’ supplements scandal after reluctantly accepting a three-match ASADA ban.
But those who know Gallen intimately contend his “big, bad wolf” persona is just a facade that he revels in and helps cultivate.
“I think he likes being the enemy,” Stuart Raper, Cronulla’s coach from 2004-06, told The New Daily.
“Everyone in NSW likes him, he’ll be very well-liked on Sunday – but I don’t think he’ll be going on too many holidays in Queensland.
“That’s all part of the fun and games and ‘Gal’ knows it.
“He’s a competitor and sometimes that competitiveness goes over the top. I’m sure that’s something he doesn’t want to curb.”
Raper also lauded the often-unseen contribution Gallen made away from the playing arena.
“He’s done a lot of stuff in the community and he’s revered in the Shire for the all the work he does off the field,” he said.
“I work for the Men of League and he’s always willing to give up time. He’s a terrific bloke.”
Kiwis legend Nigel Vagana, who played 61 games for the Sharks from 2004-06, echoed his former coach’s sentiments.
“He was always that person who didn’t care too much about what other people said,” Vagana says.
“Some people see it as the big, bad wolf, others see it as the honest clubman.
“’Gal’ can put people offside, but I see the other side of him and know he’s just the guy that doesn’t want to let his teammates and those people close to him down.
“He’s the guy you want in the trenches when the going gets tough.”
A veteran of 24 Origins and 32 Tests, Gallen is unquestionably one of the greatest forwards in rugby league history.
His epic 80-minute display at prop in the Blues’ game two win in 2011 is regarded as the finest ever by an Origin forward, while the three-time Dally M Lock of the Year claimed the Wally Lewis Medal as player of the series after NSW’s drought-breaking triumph in 2014.
Far from the most naturally gifted athlete, Gallen has set new standards for durability and sustained excellence through sheer desire, determination and passion – traits that were apparent early in his career.
”Probably the biggest thing I found was his tenacity and commitment to succeeding.”
Former Cronulla coach Stuart Raper
“He trained hard, very focused on winning, very upset when he lost,” Raper added.
Vagana admires the way Gallen has matured into his leadership role.
“When you’re the perceived leader of a team, you’ve got to set the example on and off the field,” the former ace centre says.
“Gal’s grown up in that respect, understanding his position – not just in the team, but off the field and around the club.”