NRL Grand Final 2021 Rabbitohs v Panthers: The rehab visit that changed Taaffe's life

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Blake Taaffe sat around a fire with the burning flames providing a powerful metaphor.

As the bonfire bellowed smoke, the powerful words shared by men living at drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre The Glen on the NSW Central Coast, lit a flame inside the 17-year-old.

They were words that changed the life of the rookie grand final fullback.

The afternoon at The Glen was organised by former Central Coast Roosters SG Ball coach Mark O’Meley.

Taaffe and his Central Coast Roosters teammates had been embarrassed 80-0 over the previous weekend, ironically by the South Sydney Rabbitohs SG Ball side in 2016.

“How do I find a way to inspire these boys?,” Mark O’Meley recalls asking himself.

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NRL Grand Final 2021 Rabbitohs v Panthers: The rehab visit that changed Taaffe's life

Camera IconSitting around the campfire Credit: CourierMail

“So I took them to The Glen.

“I rang the drug and rehab centre and asked if they had any ex-footy players at the centre and it so happened they had a player from Parramatta and they had a player from Penrith at the time.”

Taaffe was about as far away from Suncorp Stadium on NRL grand final day as one could imagine. He and his junior Roosters teammates played a game of touch football against the men, who had entered the centre to fight the addiction of drugs and alcohol.Some of the men had appeared on television and in the NRL only a year earlier.

“We played touch and that was magical,” The Glen executive director Joe Coyte said. “Because a couple of the guys that were in The Glen were really good players.

“They were in their mid to late-20’s. But then they shared their story on how they were talented footballers and they had made some bad choices…and now we’re here sitting around this fire.

“They said: ‘Don’t you dare do what we’ve done. Make sure you make the most of your life.’”

NRL Grand Final 2021 Rabbitohs v Panthers: The rehab visit that changed Taaffe's life

Camera IconBlake Taaffe will make history playing in the Grand Final Credit: CourierMail

O’Meley remembers noticing Taaffe. Of all the players seated around the night fire, O’Meley says the impact on the pint-sized fullback was overwhelming.

“They spoke about the fork in the road, life decisions that you only get once, so make the most of your opportunities,” O’Meley said.

“I watched Blake closely. And out of everyone, he took it on-board the most.

“He took it in that much, the next week we nearly beat Parra, who went on to win the competition.”

Less than 12-months later, the Sydney Roosters signed Taaffe in 2017. However, he was unable to break through the logjam of rising stars at the club.

Taaffe returned to the Central Coast playing A-Grade for Berkeley Vale before O‘Meley picked up the phone again at the start of the 2018 season. This time he called North Sydney Bears under-20’s coach Willie Leyshon, who was in need of a half.

The Bears were then a feeder-club to the Rabbitohs. Leyshon signed Taaffe for match payments of $300 for a win and $150 a loss.

“He fitted straight-in,” Leyshon said.“The first game I threw him in at five-eighth.

“But then he trained at fullback one night against reserve grade and straight away you could tell the way he got across the ground.

“His footwork, his pass both ways, I kind of hit the jackpot.

NRL Grand Final 2021 Rabbitohs v Panthers: The rehab visit that changed Taaffe's life

Camera IconThey also played a game of touch Credit: CourierMail

“He moved through the Rabbitohs grades from us and ‘Ogre’ (O’Meley) picked him in the NSW under-20’s team.

“It’s an awesome story. It’s about opportunity and now he’s progressed to the NRL with Souths at fullback in a grand final.

“If he doesn’t get the opportunity, if he didn’t persist, he might still be playing on the Central Coast.’’

Instead, Taaffe is playing in a grand final for the Rabbitohs in what will be just his eighth game, the fewest games to appear in a decider since Steve Price in 1994.

“I sent him a text this week and told him to soak it all up because some blokes play all their lives to be in this position,” Leyson said.

You get the feeling, Taaffe won’t be holding back, remembering the advice he first received around the campfire.

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