NRL | Great survivor Jacob Lillyman reflects on his 16 season NRL career and the night Andrew Johns ruined his top-grade debut in Townsville

Jacob Lillyman remembers it as one of those Andrew Johns’ masterclasses.

“One of his greatest performances at club level, they say,” the veteran prop recalled this week when asked about his memories of his NRL debut against the Knights some 16 seasons ago.

It was Saturday, August 9, 2003 and Lillyman was a 19-year-old backrower debuting off the bench for the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville.

For 35 minutes, he had a frontrow seat to a Johns magic show.

“He really turned it on that night,”Lillyman said.

“I remember getting on just before halftime and it was already 48-0. I think it finished up 60-24.”

Johns scored 24 points on his own with a try and 10 goals and had a hand in most of his side’s 10 tries with Adam MacDougall scoring a hattrick and Matt Gidley and Ben Kennedy snaring doubles.

“I suppose the career was always going to head north from that point,”Lillyman joked.

And it has.

Six seasons at the Cowboys were followed by nine at the New Zealand Warriors prior to linking with the Knights this year for what will be his NRL swansong.

Influential: Veteran Knights prop Jacob Lillyman has been a highly influential figure at the club for Newcastle's band of young forwards this season. He is set to hang up the boots after 16 seasons in the NRL. Picture: Simone De Peak.

Influential: Veteran Knights prop Jacob Lillyman has been a highly influential figure at the club for Newcastle's band of young forwards this season. He is set to hang up the boots after 16 seasons in the NRL. Picture: Simone De Peak.

In the toughest rugby league competition in the world, Lillyman 34, has been one of the great survivors.  

“It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster at times but I have no regrets. I’ve had a crack and think I probably got the most out of myself so it’s been good,”he said.

Lillyman grew up in Richmond, a small town in western Queensland and spent four years at boarding school in Charters Towers before finishing highschool in Townsville.

He was still in high school when he played lower grades for the Cowboys prior to his 2003 debut.

He says he decided on the move to Auckland and the Warriors at the end of 2008 just to experience something different.

“I thought I’d go to New Zealand for a couple of years and experience something different. But I loved it over there,” he said.

“I played in a grandfinal there in 2011. Probably the last couple of years were a bit tough but I had a really good stint over there and enjoyed it and obviously met my partner over there.”

Lillyman could have stayed at the Warriors for a 10th season this year and finished his career across the Tasman.

“There was an option to stay there for another year but where I was, it had been really tough mentally,” he said.

“I didn’t know how long I had left and just decided it would be good to go and experience something else.

“The opportunity came up here in Newcastle so we jumped at it just for the challenge and to experience a different lifestyle.”

He and his partner Tui-Kay and their daughter Arani moved to Newcastle and the family has grown by one since being here with daughter Kaea born seven weeks ago.

“It’s been great,” he said.

“Newcastle is a beautiful spot. One of the reasons for coming, you never hear anyone say a bad word about Newcastle, especially anyone that has lived here.

“I wanted to give the missus that sort of beach lifestyle, they love the beach. It is a long way from her family in NZ but we have really enjoyed living here.”

Not surprisingly, Lillyman has no hesitation in saying his Queensland Origin experience has been the highlight of his career.

“That was unreal,” he said.

“I was probably thrown in there a bit before I was ready in 2006 but I managed to play 14 games all up over a period of years. We won a fair few series there and had a few good parties.

“You know, growing up in western Queensland, Origin is the pinnacle of everything and to come in and play alongside your Lockyers, Civonicevas and then the Smith, Slater, Cronk, Inglis era  – some of the best players to have ever laced on a boot – that’s been a massive achievement and something I will always be proud of.”

Lillyman is adamant there are good times ahead for the Knights.

“With all the work that Browny and Moons have done with recruitment and the changes that have been made with Wests taking over, they are certainly putting all the ducks in a row, he said.

“It’s will be awesome for the fans. I’d really love to see them rewarded over the next few years with some success because they deserve it. Hopefully, we can make a late charge this year.”