In an exclusive interview, Matt Attard sat down with Bulldogs second rower Jacob Preston.
WHEN Jacob Preston is asked to sum up his rookie season in the National Rugby League he uses one word – “crazy”.
“Being told I would make my debut, it was something I’ve chased since I was a kid,” he said.
“I used to collect all the Big League magazines, I was a footy nerd. To accomplish that dream, to play in the best competition in the world, it was special.”
Funnily enough, ‘pretty special’ is the perfect way to describe the 21-year-old who rose to stardom out of the shadows at Belmore to captivate an entire fanbase.
So captivating that after just several weeks into his career the blue and white faithful created the phenomenon known as ‘Prestonmania’.
Despite massive wraps from Phil Gould in the pre-season thanks to his hard work and commitment, making his first grade debut wasn’t something that he expected so soon.
“It didn’t start to be a realistic goal until the trials. I got a fair bit of time, so I thought if I kept training hard, I might get an opportunity,” he said.
“It gave me confidence that I could handle it. It was my first NRL trial and we did well.”
Handle it he did. He was a mainstay in Cameron Ciraldo’s side for the entire season and soon earned an extended contract. A hell of an achievement for the Belrose Eagle junior who even dipped his toe in to rugby union at St Agustas College on his way to a league career.Embed from Getty Images
“In under-15s I had a rep game for Manly and didn’t do so well, so I went back to playing school footy,” he explained.
“I played Harold Matthews, SG Ball and Flegg for the North Sydney Bears (Sydney Roosters feeder team) until COVID hit and then I got the opportunity to go to the Roosters and play Flegg and NSW Cup.”
It was there that this hidden gem in the backrow was scouted by Gould and the Bulldogs, immediately thrust in to the top 30 at the beginning of a drastic rebuild.
But it wasn’t always a given that the NRL dream would come. Preston was never a first-picked type of player who made all the rep teams, but he clearly had something special that made those who were most important stand up and take notice.
“When I was playing Flegg and I was able to match it with kids making the Australian Schoolboys sides, that’s when I knew if I worked hard, I could make it,” he said.
The rest is history. As he prepares to tackle his second full NRL pre-season as one of the best rookie forwards in the game, Preston will rely on the support of his nearest and dearest to ensure he continues to thrive in a pressure environment.
“For me it’s about being myself, knowing what got me here. It’s about sticking to the principles that got me here and being the same person I always have been,” he said.
“I don’t feel like I need to or have had to change (his attitude with fame). I’ll make sure who the important people are in my life and that they know that as well. My family has been here throughout my whole journey. They play a part in keeping me grounded, they’d let me know if I ever got ahead of myself.”
His supportive partner, Anne, is always there every step of the way as he looks to forge a long career at the Bulldogs.
“The role they’ve all played in my journey has been so important. They’re always there for me at all my games, they were there for me through my injuries,” he said.
“My parents split when I was a young child and all four parents have told me to be humble, to treat people how you’d like to be treated. They make sure if you make a mistake, you own them.”
These are traits that you know are genuine in Preston when you meet him. He is often the first to make a visit in the community, to cheer up a sick fan, to stay late and sign autographs or pose for photos at the back of Accor Stadium.
If Bulldogs fans get their wish, he’ll remain at the family club for his entire career.
“Being the footy nerd I was growing up, I knew they were the family club and I found that the first day I walked in the door,” he said.
“I felt at home as soon as I got here. For my debut my family and my best mate were invited to my debut presentation, even the functions and awards nights, everyone’s family is always invited and welcomed. That sort of stuff is special.”
As he becomes a leader in the pack, he has the support around him on and off the field in people like Viliame Kikau and former captains Andrew Ryan and Josh Jackson.
“I’ll continue to knuckle down and continuing to work hard and learn from guys like Kiks. He’s one of the best backrowers in the game,” he said.
“Next year, it’s continuing to improve my game and finding more confidence and learning from these guys. Bobcat and Josh Jackson are in every day and those are two guys that showcase that work ethic daily.
“They’re always in early every day, the last ones to leave. They’re two guys who I can take a lot from. Communication is one area that I can get better at and that comes with confidence and something I’ll be trying to nail down in the pre-season.”
Despite the club finishing in the bottom four, Preston says everyone is on the same page as they look to welcome key recruits and change cultures under the leadership of Ciraldo.
“We’re working extremely hard. Nothing has changed from week to week. I feel strongly connected to everyone in the group. We built that in the pre-season and it’s still there now,” he said.
“Ciro is awesome. He’s honest. He’ll let you know what to work on. The systems he is implementing are world class, he comes from a world class system at Penrith. He’s such an approachable guy.Embed from Getty Images
“In the future I’d like to be a leader but for now I just want to be a part of making this club as great as we know it can be.”