Nearly all of us reach a point in our lives where we let go of our dreams and Zac Woolford was just about there.
- Zac Woolford was preparing for his last year in football at the start of 2022
- An injury crisis at the Raiders saw him rise from the bench in reserve grade to starting in the NRL in a matter of weeks
- After locking down a starting berth, Woolford will go head-to-head with Melbourne star Harry Grant in Saturday’s sudden-death semi-final
He’d done his time in the lower grades for Canberra, Canterbury, Newcastle and Newtown but at 25, he was at the age where the chance of playing NRL is usually getting further and further away.
Woolford had plenty of talent, he’d done all he could to realise it and it wasn’t anybody’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work out.
It was sad, but not a tragedy because Woolford was ready to put the boots away and start the next part of his life.
“This year I was going to play my footy with Newtown and it was going to be my last year. The dream had pretty much gone,” Woolford said.
“I wanted a bit of closure after COVID stopped a lot of 2020 and 2021, so I thought I’d go to Newtown, try and win the comp and that would be me. That would be the end.
“I was working at Randwick racecourse with Peter Snowden and I was really enjoying that. Once I finished with Newtown I was going to go full steam in that direction.”
But the horses will have to wait a while now Woolford has made the incredible journey from warming the bench in reserve grade to starting for Canberra in Saturday’s sudden death semi-final against Melbourne.
The man who will go head-to-head with Harry Grant, the best hooker in rugby league, only got his shot based on an injury crisis at the Raiders back in April that earned him a two week train and trial deal and no guarantees.
A month after arriving, with Canberra running low on dummy halves, he was pitched into his debut at Magic Round against the Sharks and after setting up two tries in an upset Raiders victory, Woolford hasn’t looked back.
“I just came down here and backed myself. It’s paid dividends,” Woolford said.
“I couldn’t believe it. Looking back now I still can’t believe how it’s all happened. I was resigned to the fact it was done, so it’s hard to describe. I got here on the train and trial, then a month later I was playing NRL.
“Maybe later when I’ve had time to debrief it’ll be different, but the NRL is so fast, it comes at you every week so I haven’t had the chance to sit down and think about it.
“Knowing what I’m good at, sticking to that and making sure I do all the little things right, the things we value in these four walls, that’s all I’ve tried to nail this year and I feel like that’s what I’m doing so far.”
With eight try assists for the year, Woolford is putting up similar numbers to established stars like Penrith’s Api Koroisau (12 try assists), Cronulla’s Blayke Brailey (nine) and North Queensland’s Reece Robson (seven).
That’s despite Woolford, who missed out on an NRL pre-season, playing just 595 minutes across 15 games compared to his rivals who have each played at least 20 matches and over 1500 minutes.
Where most rookies, even older ones, can take time to adjust, Woolford has played to his strengths from the start and looked like he’s been in the big league for years.
It’s an approach he credits to his many years on the periphery of first grade, where he learned a better balance between football and the rest of his life.
“When I was first in a fulltime system, footy was all you were concerned about. To me, if that didn’t work it was the end of the world,” Woolford said.
“But now I realise there’s a lot more to life and it’s a maturity thing as well. I’ve grown up a lot since I was last in a fulltime system, I’m a lot more mellow than I was back then.”
After waiting so long for his chance, Woolford’s patience has paid off. He’s re-signed with the Raiders for the next two years, and once he does get that pre-season under his belt he’s sure to improve even further.
But first the Storm, and Grant, await. The Queenslander has been in excellent touch all year – he leads all hookers for try assists with 16 in 18 games – and shapes as one of the men Canberra must contain if they’re to pull off the upset.
“He’s the benchmark for hookers in the NRL, it’s red alert when he gets out, and he’s a big part of their team. We’ll have to do our homework on him because he’s so dangerous,” Woolford said.
“We’re in a really good place down here at the moment. We’ve been building towards this moment and the last two weeks we’ve put together really good performances that we’ve been building towards for the last couple of months.
“It’s just come at the right time for us, and we know the challenge that lies ahead with Melbourne. But we’re not backing down. We’ll be ready.”