Blake Ferguson cannot help but burst into laughter when asked if he thought his career would play out this way. The former Kangaroos winger’s rugby league journey has taken a unique and sometimes controversial trajectory but even by those standards, as he adjusts to life as a player in England’s second division – where the majority of the clubs are part-time and some crowds barely reach 1,000 – it is perhaps unsurprising when Ferguson affords himself a moment to reflect on how he has reached this point.
“I wouldn’t have thought I’d be here, that’s for sure,” Ferguson admits. After all, it was only this time last year Ferguson was a regular in a Parramatta Eels side that reached the NRL finals, but a lot has happened since then. That includes an ill-fated stint in Japanese rugby union club NEC Green Rockets, which ended with the 32-year-old spending a month in jail in Japan after being arrested for alleged possession of cocaine, before being released.
Ferguson is loth to discuss the finer points of that saga too much, but after eventually returning to Australia earlier this year and failing to secure an NRL contract, he had, by his own admission, decided he was “semi-retired”. “I wasn’t really bothered about getting a full-time playing contract and I was actually getting ready to start looking for an actual job,” he says. “But then the call came in.. and here we are.”
That call Ferguson refers to was from Championship club Leigh Centurions, who made him an offer to return to playing on a short-term contract, nestled away from the Sydney spotlight in a Lancashire town where the population barely exceeds 40,000 people. “I was transitioning into a different part of life and looking forward to it, but the opportunity to keep playing was something I decided to ultimately explore,” he says.
“It’s been really refreshing coming here. We’ve a great owner, the coaching staff are fantastic and it’s been so amazing to come here and experience something new and something different with my family, who have come over too. It was important for me to get the right club, and it’s great to get the love back for rugby league.” Ferguson’s impact was immediate, scoring four tries on his debut against Workington Town. He even played at Wembley in May as Leigh won the 1895 Cup, a competition reserved exclusively for teams outside of Super League.
Yet that is all a far cry from both the life Ferguson experienced at the top of the game in the NRL, and the life he was about to embark on had that call never arrived from Leigh to revive his rugby league career. “I was going to go into the coal mining industry,” the winger laughs. “I had an interview back home about the job before I came over here, around three weeks before in fact so it was getting pretty close.
“I’d basically got the job but the chance to come here and keep playing, explore Europe, and get the buzz back for playing the game. It was what I needed. It’s been an absolute breath of fresh air too and I’m really glad I’ve done it. We didn’t get as far as locking down the specific job I was going to be doing in the mines just outside Sydney, but it was definitely going to be different to what I’d been used to.”
Ferguson will be the biggest star on show this weekend at the Summer Bash, the equivalent of the NRL’s Magic Weekend, where all teams play in the same stadium on the same weekend. But as he surveys the surroundings in West Yorkshire where he will make his latest appearance as a Leigh player, the question has to be asked: what does the future hold beyond 2022? Leigh are the favourites for promotion to Super League, and the Centurions are keen to keep him and extend their blossoming relationship into a second season with a club and a town that have taken him to their heart.
Does playing in Europe’s elite competition entice him? Or has he not yet given up hope of crafting a way back into the NRL? “We’ll see what happens,” he says. “At the moment we’re focussing on footy, my agent does everything for me in that regard and it doesn’t worry me. I came here to enjoy myself and get the buzz back and it’s been exactly that: really enjoyable. Everyone in Lancashire is really nice, you can go out for walks, say hello to people.. it’s been a great change.
“All that stuff from my past is behind me now I hope. It’s been good over here to get a fresh start. It’s been a breath of fresh air, seeing different faces and experiencing different things. Let’s enjoy the next 10 weeks with Leigh and worry about the future then.”