Ash Taylor finds a new beginning, at the end of an NRL career that promised so much

Ash Taylor didn’t cry when he told the world why he retired from football.

It can’t have been easy, but there were no tears from the athlete whose NRL career was dying young.

There was emotion, certainly. But that was for his Warriors teammates, not for the world.

“Not being able to do something I’ve been a part of since I was five years old, it hit home a fair bit,” Taylor said.

“When I came on the scene, footy was my life. I thought it was going to be my life forever.

“Looking back now, I’d tell a young Ash to look at the education, the post-career side of footy.”

Even with no tears, Taylor seemed very human, sitting up there and fielding questions from a bunch of people he didn’t know.

And the week went on, and the rugby league discourse rumbled past Ash Taylor, and then the player who once was unlike anybody else became just another guy who used to be somebody.

Ash Taylor, the footballer, has to give way to Ash Taylor the man.

It’s another reminder that athletes don’t die when they retire, they’re re-born into a second life.

Taylor wore plenty of shots during his NRL career. (Getty Images: Chris Hyde )

The man seemed at peace with what was going on. Retirement came unexpectedly, but with great certainty.

Taylor did the right things, he saw the specialists, he tried to keep going, but this was the end.

He isn’t raging against the dying of the light, he’s ready for it. His time of him has just come earlier than anybody, including himself, would have thought.

It’s tempting to say that Taylor’s end is a tragedy, that he never lived up to the considerable potential he showed because that potential was so very considerable and so very obvious.

After all, he won rookie of the year ahead of Nathan Cleary, Cody Walker, Latrell Mitchell and Suliasi Vunivalu back in 2016, and it was the right decision.

Mitchell had his moments on a struggling team, Vunivalu had his moments on a strong one, Walker showed an NRL life can begin after 25 and Cleary played like a veteran, but Taylor was the best of them.

He could pass long and short on both sides, he had a right-foot step that could slice any defense up and his kicking game was like something created in a laboratory.

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I have played the whole year at halfback for the Titans and grew in stature as the season went on.

By the time the club made the finals, scraping in at eighth, for their only trip to the play-offs between 2011 and 2020, he was their best player.

In the only finals game he would ever end up playing, a demented 44-28 loss to the Broncos, the Titans were in with a fighting chance until Taylor went off, injured, with 20 minutes left.

And then everything that happens to young, promising halfbacks happened to Taylor.

He was good again in his sophomore season and the Titans put up a million dollars a season for him, because they would have done anything to keep him from going back to Brisbane.

After their outstanding first few years in the premiership competition, Gold Coast have spent almost the rest of their existence searching for a savior and Taylor looked every inch of it.

The hype was impossible to control, as that rugby league discourse, which has now blown past Ash Taylor, fell over itself to proclaim him the prodigy of a lifetime: There were pundits who said he was ahead of where Andrew Johns and Johnathan Thurston were at the same point of their careers.

Cleary, a fellow member of the rookie class, is the one who has risen to the levels the Queenslander was once tipped to hit.

However, in their first seasons, Taylor was the most skilful player.

Clearly he was physical and rugged and played with tremendous effort, but he did not have Taylor’s touch.

That is something he has learned along the way, en route to becoming the best halfback in the world, maybe the best player.

Everything that has happened to him was supposed to happen to Taylor.

Nathan Cleary and Dean Whare celebrate a Panthers try
Nathan Cleary missed out on Ash Taylor for rookie of the year honors in 2016. (AAP: Paul Miller)

Eleven things didn’t work out the way Taylor and the Titans would have hoped, it was easy to bag the poor old Gold Coast boys for yet another bad investment.

However, if they hadn’t done it, somebody else would have, such was Taylor’s obvious talent, his clear poise and the special, undefinable qualities that existed around him.

He was their chosen one, the one who could make the Titans as great as he wanted them to be. It’s so easy to dream on young fellas, on what they might or what they could become, and Taylor made it easier than most.

It’s reminiscent of another brilliant rookie of the year, from years before. He played a bit like Taylor, especially with his kicking game, and he became a hero for a club that needed it and it never again got as good as it did at the start.

Tim Smith’s career at Parramatta fell apart for different reasons to Taylor, but the parallels are clear.

Like Taylor, he was eaten alive by the monstrous expectations he could not control.

On the back of his incredible 2005 season, where he was credited with 42 try assists — a record that stands to this day — Smith was tipped to challenge Thurston for the Maroons halfback spot for years to come.

Peter Sterling symbolically handed the Parramatta number seven jersey on the footy show. Smith’s ascent was not destiny, it was prophecy. You’d have bet your life on it happening.

Tim Smith misses in extra time
There are parallels to be drawn between Ash Taylor and Tim Smith. (Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

It didn’t, of course. Smith never reached those heights again, as injuries and off-field issues slowly ended a career that began with so much promise.

Taylor has bravely and openly spoken of his own trials: the mental health struggles that led to him taking a break from the game in 2019, the brutal pressure and expectation he felt from his lofty contract, how he considered an early retirement more than once.

“I’ve had some great times, and I had some tough times as well. Without those times, I wouldn’t be who am I today,” Taylor said.

“I wouldn’t be representing myself this well without those times. It’s been a rollercoaster, but it’s come to an end now. I have to move on with the rest of my life.”

In the end, his body would not match the strength of his mind. He could see the chances, but his hips would not let him get there.

Injuries that stopped him from being able to play with his children helped him realize that football was a thing he did, rather than the person he was.

Taylor said he could not describe the pain he was in by the end.

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He turned 27 in March, and he retired young without ever becoming the player that was promised back in those early years. That’s how it goes for some guys in the big leagues, even the ones who look like they could be the best of them.

It’s tempting to assign blame for why it didn’t go Taylor’s way.

Is it on the Titans, for giving him all that money, even though plenty of other clubs would have done the same?

Is it on Taylor, for not looking after his body as he should have, even though a degenerative hip condition isn’t exactly a common ailment and there was a litany of other injuries he could not control?

Is it on the people who leveled those expectations on him, even though his talent seemed to demand it?

It’s on all of them and none of them. There’s never any one guilty with these things.

But this is not a sad story. In his retirement press conference, Taylor spoke passionately about becoming a teacher, working with Indigenous youth, how he enjoyed his time at the Warriors because of the focus they put on connecting with culture, and how excited he was to be around his kids more often .

As suddenly as this has happened, he seems ready for the rest of his life to start.

He’s probably going back to Toowoomba, and he’s going to get a real job, and he’s going to live as a man and not as the million-dollar contract that brought him so many things but never true contentment.

It was hard for him, and it’s easy to understand why. The head that wears the crown can be so heavy, and not even a million dollars makes it easy to be the saviour.

Jack Wighton shrugs off Ash Taylor
In the end, Ash Taylor’s body betrayed him. (AAP: Albert Perez)

It fills the bank account, but it also puts a target on your back every single week and that’s a tough thing to carry. Just ask David Fifita, who was brought in as the new Gold Coast “messiah” and is wearing plenty of the shots that were once aimed at Taylor.

That was once Taylor’s lot in life. I didn’t like it. No sane person would. For a long time, it didn’t seem like footy was fun for him anymore. It would be a good thing for him to find in this game again, if he wants.

Maybe, if his body stops hurting, he can play again back home, out in Toowoomba, for Brothers or Valleys or the like.

Maybe he can do all the things that became his curse and his blessing, his joy and his sorrow, but just have fun with them.

Or he might do it as a coach, just to be around, to feel the good things about football that he will surely miss, that — even at the end — he only gave up because he was physically forced to do so.

He doesn’t have to do it, but it would be a nice end to the story. He was a hell of a player, once upon a time. He really was.

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