Rarely does a player get the opportunity to bow out on their own accord, with injuries and form often forcing players to take the less glorious backstage exit when their rugby league career is finally over.
Even rarer is the opportunity to finish with back-to-back premierships, but that is what Dean Bristow is eyeing as he prepares for his final game of rugby league when Tumut take on Gundagai at McDonald’s Park on Sunday.
“I don’t think you could dream of a better way to finish and I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Bristow said.
The co-captain/coach admitted that leading into this season, he was likely preparing for his Tumut swansong but still became emotional when discussing the possibility of never pulling on a Blues jumper again.
“It’s really hitting me as we speak. I have mixed emotions to be honest. Ideally, I would love to keep playing but it’s come time that I need to listen to my body more than anything,” Bristow said.
“It’s a game I’ve grown up loving and always played and to stop playing will be really hard, but I have played rugby league since I was six years old and I’ve never given the body a proper break.”
A troublesome back, that has been exacerbated in recent seasons after a late diagnosis of scoliosis, is the main reason Bristow will hang up the boots.
“Probably in 2017 is when I started to notice it and I’ve been battling it the last two seasons in particular, last year and this year it has given me the most grief,” Bristow said.
The Tumut veteran debuted with the club back in 2009 and was involved with the first-grade squad that won the 2010 premiership, before taking on new challenges in Newcastle and Wollongong.
“I left at the start of 2011 after playing just a few games here and went to Newcastle for 2011, 12 and 13 before spending two years with Kiama,” Bristow said.
When Bristow returned in 2016, the Blues were at their lowest point, finishing with the dreaded wooden spoon, before Bristow led the club back to the top of the Group 9 pecking order last season.
“I came back and we won the wooden spoon in 2016, which was really tough,” Bristow said.
“It makes me pretty proud to think of where the club was and where it came from, to being back winning premierships.”
In 2017, Bristow played under Jarrad Teka, before transitioning into a captain/coach role and leading the club to glory in 2019.
Bristow said Tumut’s recent success came back to the club culture, an area he focused on intently, hoping it would pay off for future generations.
“I could just see the total culture was not what it was when I left the club, it had changed the mindset of the players,” Bristow said.
“The big point for me was to redevelop the culture and that winning attitude within the club and return it to what I knew it to be.”
Bristow is regarded by many around the club as the main reason Tumut won a premiership in 2019, and to taste more success on Sunday would surely see his name spoken of in the same breath as great Tumut coaches, John Hobby, Clay Campbell and Jarrad Teka.
When asked if a strong, winning culture is what he wanted to leave behind, Bristow said it wasn’t something he actively thought about, but admitted he would be proud to have his name mentioned in such prestigious company.
“In regard to a legacy, I don’t look upon it like that, but it makes me proud to think I could leave that legacy and be put in the same class of those names you mentioned,” Bristow said.
Bristow, who strongly considered retirement at the end of 2019, said playing on the extra year was motivated by the need to develop the next generation of players.
“That’s why I wanted to go this extra year longer, especially with the uncertainly after our premiership and I didn’t want to see the club go by the wayside,” Bristow said.
A strong junior base, with competitive under 16s and 18s teams, has Bristow confident it is the right time to pass on the duties.
“The thing I wanted to do was pass on to these boys what the club is all about and hope that stays with them, so they can pass it on down through to the grades,” Bristow said.
“It’s good to see five grades this year, with good numbers and a lot more competitive teams.”
As far as coaching, or staying involved next year, Bristow is happy to play his part in what ever way the club deems fit.
“I will have to sit down and talk to the club. I have mixed emotions about coaching as well. I would love to help the club and do anything to help out but I will see where they are at and what role, if any, I need to play,” Bristow said.
Bristow did reiterate the importance of the Blues committee and extended family that made his job so much easier over the years.
“I don’t want to mention anyone in particular as I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out, but everyone has played their part and I’m happy to have had all these people around me, who have made my job easier,” Bristow said.
Blues president Bryan Black couldn’t speak highly enough of Bristow, believing the popular captain/coach embodied what it meant to wear a Blues jersey, especially after coming through the club during their golden years.
“He just brought back pride into the club and instilled that passion for the jersey and what it meant by sticking up for your mates,” Black said.
“I think with him coming home, he had seen how the club had gone away from being what it was all about, and he wanted to bring all that back.”
The Blues president didn’t hide the fact he wanted Bristow on board as a coach or advisor next season.
“To keep him involved would be massive, as he is such a good communicator with everyone, plus he has some ideas of ways to keep that pride going with the club,” Black said.