TWO-TIME premiership winner Chris Heighington admits staying close to his ailing father, Tom, was part of the reason he came to Newcastle to extend his NRL career into a 16th season.
And at the Knights, Heighington hopes he can himself be a father figure to the club’s young talent in what shapes as his swansong season.
Heighington, who will be 36 when the 2018 season begins, trained with Newcastle for the first time on Wednesday in what was the squad’s final hit-out before the Christmas break.
A grand final winner at Wests Tigers in 2005 and Cronulla in 2016, Heighington is 12th on the all-time ARL/NRL games list with 318 but said “there was still fire in my belly to go around again” after his Sharks deal ended.
He said “I probably would have played somewhere else” if not for the Knights’ one-year contract, but he was glad to be with Newcastle.
“It’s a good squad here, and it works really well for me,” Heighington said. “I grew up on the Central Coast and always loved the Knights, so it’s a great way to finish the back-end of my career.”
The deal also means Heighington, who lives in Wamberal, can stay close to his Dad, who is battling cancer. He said his father had fought “a few different cancers” but was “doing all right”.
Asked if his father’s battle was a factor in joining Newcastle, he said: “Yeah, for sure, because he lives in Umina, so not far from me and we get to catch up a lot more and I can spend more time with him, which is important. We’ve got a pretty close bond there. It’s pretty hard for him to get to Cronulla and other areas, so it’s good to be close to him.”
He joined pre-season training later than other Knight recruits because of his role in England’s World Cup campaign, in which he featured in the 6-0 final loss to Australia on December 2. It was a tough start on Wednesday as temperatures climbed into the high 30s at Mayfield but Heighington was excited about the prospects of the new-look Knights.
“There’s some great signings and I think we’ve got a good mix of youth and experience now,” he said. “Everyone’s bubbling out there on the field and more confident and there’s a good vibe around here.”
Heighington was open to what on-field role he would play and he was keen to offer value to the club off the park.
“It’s just good to be around young kids coming through and hopefully I can help them build their careers,” he said. “When I’m finished up or retired, they can excel.”
As for the potential of him next year joining Glenn Lazarus as a grand final winner at three clubs, he said: “There’s always a chance.
“In 2005 when we won the premiership, six or seven games into the competition we were paying $101 to win it, so it’s got that sort of feel to it, with the Benji Marshalls and Robbie Farahs, who were young. [Now] it’s the Brock Lambs coming through, players like that, who will stand up. There’s a good mix of senior and some youth coming through, which is very important.”
Past football, the forward plans to build a career in high-performance training which has already taken in helping back-to-back women’s world surfing champion Tyler Wright and men’s world No.5 Matt Wilkinson.
As for playing on past next season, he said: “I’ll just do my best for the Knights next season and hopefully no injuries and stuff, but I’m not sure.
“A week is a long time in footy and I’ll just take it week by week.”
Heighington was confident he could bolster the three-time wooden spooners on the field, especially after his World Cup performance.
“That was a really tough game that actually, it was one of the toughest I’ve been a part of, so to know I can still handle it at that level. I was pretty happy with that,” he said.
“I’ve played a few years now so hopefully I can bring some experience to the Knights and we can have a good year.”
As for thoughts of retirement last year, he said: “I haven’t had many injuries. I haven’t had any reconstructions and I haven’t missed many footy games and still mentally I want to do it. I love training still.
“A lot of people told me you’ll know when it’s time to retire, and I haven’t felt that yet.
“I’ve come a few days earlier than what I’m meant to and still really enjoy it still, so that’s why I’m still here.”