Blues Brothers Reunited in NSW Side
"I thought that we were always going to play together."
Parramatta's superstar fullback Jarryd Hayne is sitting on the spongy turf of Coffs Harbour's Coffs International Stadium, a microcosm of serenity as frenetic activity swirls around him.
It's the afternoon, shadows are lengthening across the field, and the NSW Origin players are halfway through their final commitment of a whirlwind opening three days of Origin camp before a well-earned rest day: a 4pm coaching clinic which attracted more than 450 local juniors.
Wearing the sky blue and dark blue training kit of the NSW Blues, Hayne is watching a group of 12-year-olds being put through their paces before he is to address the young fans.
When Hayne was their age he was playing junior footy for the Cabramatta Two Blues. Unbeknownst to him back then, he was lining up alongside two future NSW Origin teammates in Trent Hodkinson and Tony Williams. Players who would later join him in the Parramatta junior system and take the club's under-16s side to consecutive grand final wins in the Harold Matthews competition.
There is more than a touch of nostalgia in his voice as he reflects upon the remarkable journey that took those two players away from him, before bringing them back to rejoin forces in the fiercest cauldron the sport has to offer.
On Wednesday night they will all line up together for the first time since they were teenagers. They will do so in front of more than 50,000 roaring fans, mostly hostile Queenslanders.
"It was a great team," Hayne tells NRL.com matter-of-factly, leaning back, his arms propping him up and legs spread in front of him as he watches the juniors run back and forth.
"It was something that, I guess, we played with each other from when we were about 12 until we were about 16 and we kind of thought that – well, I thought – that we were always going to play together."
Hayne, Hodkinson and Williams were also schoolmates at Sydney's Westfield Sports High. They won two consecutive grand finals together in the Harold Matthews competition for Parramatta with Hayne at fullback, Hodkinson at halfback and big T-Rex, still growing into his enormous frame, a wrecking ball out on the wing.
"Even when I was playing Premier League and kind of made all the rep teams before everyone else, they were always in the grades [at Parramatta] and it probably wasn't until we were all about 20 when they left the club – that was a bit of a shock and a bit hard to take," Hayne says.
History shows Hodkinson was cruelly robbed of a potential NRL debut for the Eels after doing his knee in a trial match before being let go by the club. He ended up debuting for Manly in 2010 and played strongly for one season before again being let go, this time to allow the club to blood another highly-regarded youngster in Daly Cherry-Evans, the now-Kangaroo who will face off against the Blues trio wearing the maroon of Queensland come Origin I.
More injuries almost ended Hodkinson's career at his new club, Canterbury, and he found himself behind another playmaker in Kris Keating. As fate would have it, Keating was the five-eighth playing alongside Hodkinson in those Harold Matts days. As Hayne says, it was a great team.
Hodkinson fought his way back – first to full fitness, then to first choice Bulldogs halfback, displacing Keating who eventually moved to the UK Super League in search of another opportunity.
Unlike Hodkinson, Williams did make his NRL debut for the Eels, on the wing in 2008, before joining Manly, where Hodkinson would eventually follow him before they both relocated to the Bulldogs.
Sitting down with NRL.com in the cafe of the Coffs Harbour Novotel a day earlier, Williams – who rejoins the NSW side after two games in his breakout 2012 season – said he was even happier about Hodkinson's call-up than his own.
"It's good to see Trent here – obviously he's battled with injuries, it's good for him to get in there and be playing at the highest level. We grew up together, to see him grow and battle those challenges, it's good to see," Williams says.
"I was even more happy he made it than I made it!"
"Obviously I'm happy that I'm here!" Williams laughs quickly.
"But what he's been through, I'm just so happy to see him here.
"We played at Cabramatta together, went to school together, obviously played for Parra together. We went to Manly together as well and now I'm at the Bulldogs with him. I've known him for a long time and known what he was capable of. He's an unbelievable player and has a lot of heart. He's well suited for this game, he's a tough player and I can't wait to play with him."
Williams says at that point in time, it's his firm belief Hodkinson was the best halfback in the country in that age group.
"Defensively he was smashing blokes, " he said.
"He was unlucky at Parra, that year I reckon he would have made his debut but he did his knee in a trial match he didn't need to play in. That was devastating for him and I felt bad for him but he's turned it around, working hard, kept at it and for him to be here now, it's unbelievable."
What if someone had told you back then you'd all be playing Origin together?
"I probably wouldn't have believed it, but it's funny how life works," Williams says.
"There was a lot of talent in our team back then, we were lucky enough to keep at it and go this far. It could have been anyone but we worked hard to get where we are and we're grateful to be here.
"We won Harold Matts twice in a row. We won a lot of grand finals and had a superstar team. We had Krisnan Inu in that team, Kris Keating, there were a few."
The team also included current Eels skipper Tim Mannah, and a player that could be one of the best that never was, according to Hayne.
"Jordan Tua'au was probably one of the best players that didn't make it," Hayne says.
"He had a kid when he was about 18, 19 and fell away from the game but he was as good as all of us. Him and Tony in the second row were unbelievable."
Hodkinson also looks back on those days fondly.
"It's great; we played a lot of junior footy together at Cabramatta, and at Parramatta in the Harold Matts and SG Ball. You wouldn't have thought back then that all three of us would be playing together in the Origin side," Hodkinson tells NRL.com.
"It's great you know, obviously Jarryd's been there for years already and Tony's experienced and I'm finally getting the opportunity to represent NSW. We were talking about that the other day, and how great it was to all be playing together for the Blues."
The trio brought furious success to the Parramatta junior sides they played in together. If they can scrape together even a fraction of that success when they reunite on the game's biggest stage, all of New South Wales will have cause to rejoice.