“I nearly let it slip, and the rewards I’ve received this year make you really hungry to stay in that good frame of mind, have people on your side, compete for trophies and play in a team where people like you.”
For several years Jackson Hastings was destined for rugby league stardom. The son of Sydney Roosters great Kevin Hastings, he grew up in Wollongong and came through the St George Illawarra Dragons youth ranks. He represented New South Wales at Under-16 and Under-18 level and was picked for the prestigious Australian Schoolboys.
Hastings joined the Roosters in 2014, after his father’s old club won a bidding war also involving the Dragons, North Queensland and Newcastle. He made his NRL debut that year at the age of just 18 and went on to represent the Junior Kangaroos the following year.
But at the end of 2016, the Roosters let him go after he fell out with several senior players. He joined Manly but only lasted 18 months on the northern beaches and was released in mid-2018 after a messy bust-up with Sea Eagles captain Daly Cherry-Evans.
Unwanted in the NRL, Hastings’ once-promising career could have been over. But England has been the halfback’s saviour.
Salford Red Devils snapped up the half-back and Hastings made an immediate impact, scoring in a win over Leeds on his debut. He went on to help his new side avoid the drop in 2018 and has not looked back since.
This season Hastings’ displays have gone up a gear as a Salford side initially thought to be in danger of not even starting the season due to financial problems have marched all the way to their maiden grand final. The Red Devils finished third in the table and had never reached Super League’s biggest stage until they shocked Wigan last Friday.
Directing them around the park has been Hastings, who has tallied the most try assists in the competition, a whopping 36 from just 29 appearances, 14 more than second-placed St Helens fullback Lachlan Coote. He has also crossed for eight tries and made the 10th-highest total of tackle busts in the competition.
His sterling performances saw him receive the coveted Man of Steel award, given to the best player in the competition, last Sunday. On and off the field Hastings has given himself completely, engaging with fans and being a terrific ambassador for rugby league. It is fair to say his turnaround is more than complete.
“It’s humbling,” the 23-year-old said of becoming the Man of Steel. “It makes all the tough times worth it. It’s a special moment and something I’ll never forget.”
Hastings has one game left for Salford before joining Wigan next year. The small task of defeating the practically-unbeatable St Helens, League Leader’s Shield winners for the past two seasons, awaits.
But in many ways the playmaker has won already. Maturing in England, resurrecting his career and getting his life back on track have been significant achievements. However, Hastings knows he cannot revert to past habits and rest on his laurels as he might once have done.
“For me to [succeed] I have to keep improving and keep evolving,” he admits.
“I took a lot for granted in the past, I rested on natural talent a bit coming through and then I went a bit stagnant. I didn’t know what was going on at the time. But all it is is hard work and determination and wanting to improve – you have to want to improve. You’re in this game for a short period of time.
Growing up, Hastings idolised Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns, one of the greatest half-backs in rugby league history. He has also been mentored by former Australian international Matthew Johns, Andrew’s older brother, and undergone special training sessions as he seeks to get better and better.
“I obviously saw the back end of Joey’s career, and then it was Johnathan Thurston,” Hastings reveals.
“You take little things from their games and try to take them into your own. I’d never met Matty before, I’d done a bit with Joey before, [but when I was at the Roosters] I drove up to Collaroy. He was just so welcoming, he’s a great bloke.
“He’s a mastermind really. The way he articulates things and breaks the game down, it’s like Joey but different. Matty gave me a lot of belief. He’s always had my best interests at heart and been very kind to me. Even now we still message.
“I’m going to have a few sessions with him in the off-season when I go back to Australia to try and improve and become the best player I can.”
With the Grand Final this Saturday, Hastings has the chance to make history again. Salford have never won a Super League Grand Final and last won a major trophy 43 years ago, and, with the Great Britain Lions tour a mere fortnight away, he may also to get the opportunity to make a name for himself on the international stage.
Hastings is eligible to play for England and Great Britain through his English grandmother and is keen to do so. While his decision has riled some fans, the 23-year-old could provide the spark and direction the national team has been missing for years.
“It’s not my fault,” Hastings says.
I don’t write the rule book, I don’t pick the team. And I can understand why some people screw their nose up, I’m not oblivious to things like that and I fully understand.
“But I play my heart out for the jersey I wear and that would be no different. I’m eligible, it’s out of my hands, if I get picked I’ll play. I just want to do the people who love me proud and I want to do the jersey I’m playing in proud. I just want to be the best version of myself.”