It’s the Rugby League rollercoaster which took Josh Drinkwater from a Western Sydney construction site to Wembley – and etched the humble halfback’s name in the history books.
In the heat of the 2017-18 Australian summer, Drinkwater was at a crossroads in his promising career. Let go by the Leigh Centurions after their 2017 season ended in relegation, the 26-year-old had returned home and had taken up manual labour, with his Rugby League future unclear. The former Holden Cup star, once viewed as a long-term NRL option at the Dragons and then the Tigers, was digging holes to make a living, getting further away from the football field by the minute.
But digging deep is what the resilient No.7 does best, and a call from Western Suburbs Magpies coach Brett Hodgson changed everything.
“It was tough, mate,” Drinkwater tells NSWRL.com.au. “I spent a lot of time just working, I was willing to get back into footy and luckily enough ‘Hodgo’ gave me a call.
“He knew I played over (in England) and he found out I didn’t have a club, so he gave me a call and I haven’t looked back.”
By mid-February, the recently-rebranded Magpies had found the halfback to lead them into their Intrust Super Premiership NSW return. Fans are all too aware of the display which Drinkwater produced in the seven games that followed.
“I was loving my time at the Magpies at the start of the year,” Drinkwater recalls. “‘Hodgo’ was fantastic for me – from my first day I got there I really got a good part-time squad. He really helped me as a player and I’ve got to give him a lot of credit, to be honest.
“It was tough going back to part-time but he made it so enjoyable and I played my best footy under him. I owe him a lot.”
Drinkwater was unquestionably the competition’s best player in the opening two months, scoring 72 points and setting up 11 tries in the Magpies’ five wins. Still digging holes, still commuting from his Central Coast home and backing up a hard day’s work with training, the Terrigal Sharks junior never lost the hunger for success. A hunger which was about to be satisfied in the most extraordinary way.
The in-form playmaker’s phone rang for a second time; it was Steve McNamara. That’s the man who, just months prior, had coached the Catalans Dragons to a devastating Million Pound Game win over Leigh, sending both the Centurions and their halfback packing. The former England boss needed a replacement for retired halfback Luke Walsh, and Drinkwater was his man.
As much as Magpies fans will attest to Drinkwater’s dominance in the season’s early rounds, those in the northern hemisphere will laud his transformation of the Dragons since his April arrival. Struggling to string wins together in the Super League, the Dragons were celebrated as easy opponents when drawn by stronger teams in the Challenge Cup, but gradually rebuilt their reputation. Drinkwater was central to a mid-season turnaround which would soon deliver French Rugby League its proudest moment.
Proving to offer more than nuisance value throughout the course of the knock-out competition, the Dragons shocked many to book a place in the final at Wembley Stadium. Even then, the chances of the Dragons defeating the Warrington Wolves in the decider – and becoming the first non-British side in the tournament’s 122-year history to claim the famous silverware – were considered slim by many.
But the men from Perpignan did the unthinkable.
“It’s hard to explain… the French people are so passionate,” Drinkwater adds. “It would be like the Warriors winning the NRL, you can imagine how that place would go.
“When we land in France, the place will be going pretty wild.”
Drinkwater speaks with NSWRL.com.au moments after his side’s 20-14 victory. Standing in the shadows of Wembley’s iconic arch, a world away from the days spent covered in sweat and dirt, or the long sessions at the Magpies’ Concord training base. He’s reminded of the tougher times he endured to achieve Rugby League greatness.
“Rugby League’s a rollercoaster, I just ride it,” Drinkwater says. “I’m very fortunate that I get to do this for a job.
“There’s a lot of people that have been part-time for years, trying to make it. I have a lot of respect for those boys that work all day and play in that (Intrust Super Premiership) back home, because it is tough. I don’t think people appreciate how hard it is and what they sacrifice.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have been full-time for most of my career so it was hard, but it was worth every minute.
“Every hole I dug, it was worth it.”