June 2021

Jordan Rankin: Long way round

Jordan Rankin has spent his career bouncing around to try and establish himself in the NRL. Parramatta may just be home.

378 days. That’s how long it has been since Jordan Rankin last kicked a ball in anger. 

Running out onto a sunny Bankwest Stadium for the Parramatta Eels in the New South Wales Cup is the first competitive football he has experienced since before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The previous round has been washed out due to torrential rain, so Rankin’s first competitive outing in blue and gold will be at a picturesque Bankwest in round three of the 2021 season.

Standing on the 40 metre line before kick-off, he’s probably thinking about how quickly everything changed in the previous 12 months.

He last played for the Castleford Tigers in the English Super League on 15th March 2020.

“I’ve taken a bit of a leadership role and a bit of a mentoring role with these young kids coming through.”

When COVID-19 hit England and forced the shut down of the Super League season, Rankin packed his bags and headed back to Australia. Although, it wasn’t the pandemic that forced him home. Instead, it was a family decision.


“It was in terms of being near family and friends and not really knowing where everything was going to head. But we made that decision purely based on my partner’s grandfather fell ill and at the time Castleford wouldn’t allow me to head back to Australia to be there for her and her family through a really tough time,” he says.

“So we made the decision it was time for us to leave given we weren’t being given the support that was needed from the club and we were coming back with no promises of anything… Chloe (Jordan’s partner) had been through a lot with me over that period of time being in England, away from her family and leaving her job. It was time I gave back to her and did right by her and her family and that’s the reason why we moved back.”

There wasn’t much on offer, and with no lower grades being played, he was staring down a full season of training and waiting for another shot in the NRL.

The Parramatta Eels came calling though and he was signed as a back-up for the rest of the 2020 season and 2021.

“The opportunity came up at Parramatta not long after we returned and I had a meeting with Brad Arthur and the coaching staff there and that happened pretty quickly. It was something that I’m very grateful for, for the opportunity to again continue to live out my dream as an NRL player and to bring my family home closer to the people that mean the most to us.”

He spent the entirety of 2020 in the background. Training but not playing. Even when first choice halfback Mitchell Moses went down with a calf injury, it was Jai Field who was selected to fill the gap. 

Then when five-eighth Dylan Brown suffered an ankle injury it was Field and Will Smith who shared the duties.

With the second tier New South Wales Cup cancelled due to the pandemic, Rankin was left to push his claims at his new club only on the training paddock.

“It was hard because the reserve grade thing had been squashed long before I’d got there and I think he (Arthur) saw that I could add a bit of depth to the squad and a bit of experience as well. At that stage I’d played over 100 odd first grade games between England and Australia, or maybe even 150 odd games.

“I was under no illusions that I had to work really hard for every opportunity that I was going to get and I continue to do that today, and I will do that,” he says.

It was a tough position Rankin found himself in, and one he probably didn’t think he’d face when he debuted as a teenager more than a decade ago.

Schoolboy NRL player

It’s hard to believe watching the now red-bearded, tattoo covered and shaved headed Rankin running around and leading a team of mostly Eels juniors is the same teenage halfback that debuted in 2008.

At the time, Rankin was just 16 years and 238 days old when John Cartwright played him off the bench for the Gold Coast Titans. He was still in year 11 at high school. As he tells it, his 16 year old self was filled with the confidence only a teenager can possess when competing in the toughest competition on the planet.

“Did I think I was ready? At the time I thought I was, because I’m a kid, I’m full of confidence and I wanted to make my dreams come true. If you had told me at that age that I was going to make my debut I would have bitten your hand off and taken that opportunity whenever it was given to me.

“I sort of made it a goal for myself when I was that age that I wanted to play a game of first grade while I was still at school. I knew that was a big, ambitious goal to have but I knew that for whatever reason no one believed that I could do it, but I believed I could. I made that happen when I was in grade 11,” Rankin says.

Rankin’s debut made him the youngest in NRL history and the third youngest of all time in Australia. The last player to debut at 16 was Adam Ritson in 1995 for the Cronulla Sharks.

Ritson’s career was over not long after his debut thanks to a cyst on his brain and a following infection. 

But Rankin’s career very nearly petered out before he’d turned 20.

“I didn’t play first grade for another year and a half or two years and that was purely down to my development. Looking back on it now after 15 years in the top grade, was I ready? Not at all. 

“But that’s part and parcel of my journey through rugby league and it’s taught me a lot of lessons and grow up really quickly, and appreciate what I had because guys struggle for many years to play one game of first grade and I got to play at 16 so I’m very grateful for the opportunity that I had and it’s a great thing to look back on over my time as an NRL player.”

After debuting in 2008 he went back to the lower grades. He didn’t see any NRL games in 2009 or 2010. Left to work on his game and mature in the Queensland Cup. A period of time, he says, he needed to develop as a player.

“It’s not a blight on my career that I didn’t get to play many games after that. I really needed to go back and work hard and I think John Cartwright did the right thing by me, in putting me back and letting me develop as a player and not expecting too much of me.

“I’m grateful I got to go back and learn more about my game, more about myself as a player and get to improve before I got my next opportunity and I had to work really hard for that.”

He finally returned to the NRL in 2011 where he played eight games that season, followed by six in 2012 and two in 2013.

But like many players who debut at such a young age who are dropped back to reserve grade, they are asked to keep biding their time, waiting behind more experienced recruits for their next chance. 

“I was under no illusions that I had to work really hard for every opportunity that I was going to get.”

For Rankin, he was ready for the challenge of the NRL.

“At the time the Titans had bought a couple of players and it felt like every season I was there, there was a player being bought and there was a new obstacle for me to try and get in front of somebody else. At that time I wanted the opportunity to be playing in a team that wanted me to be their first start-up halfback.”

Consider for a moment the fact that in 2021 there have been protracted discussions and debates about Joseph Suaalii debuting a handful of months before his 18th birthday, and Rankin debuted aged 18 months younger than the Roosters prodigy.

At this type of crossroads, many young players either decide to walk away from the game completely, remain in lower grades or head back to their local competition where they play with friends.

Rankin, though, decided to pack his bags and head overseas. 

You’d consider this the point in a Hollywood movie where the protagonist puts on his jeans, boots and leather jacket, grabs a lightly packed duffle and heads to the open road on his Harley Davidson.

For Rankin, this open road was the English Super League and a contract with Hull F.C.

Once a graveyard for NRL careers looking to either have one final pay cheque or continue playing professionally for a few more seasons out of the spotlight, the Super League has become somewhat of a proving ground for younger NRL players.

While the game is still professional and intense, it’s slightly below the NRL in terms of overall quality and as such younger players can gain valuable experience without being in the fish bowl of Sydney or Brisbane.

The availability of a second and third tier alongside a loan system also means they can continue playing against professional players rather than sit on the bench in first grade, or play against part timers.

Career resurrection

“I had a friend over there (in England) who was playing for Hull F.C. at the time, Jacob Miller, who was an ex-Roosters young fella and then played for the Tigers in the NRL and we’d played schoolboys footy together.

“We caught up one off-season and he just asked me if I was interested in going across there… To get away from the bubble of the NRL was something I was really craving at the time and the coach from Hull F.C. Lee Radford rang me and he was really interested.”

Rankin went from playing lower grades at the Titans, to playing 21 games in the 2014 Super League season and 18 the following year, mostly as a starting player.

Two years and 50 first grade appearances later, Rankin was looking at a return to the NRL. 

As he explains, the time spent playing in a top tier competition had him primed for a return to the big time as a starting halfback.

“I didn’t want to let them (Hull) down when I signed. So they gave me a lot of motivation to go over there and work really hard for that and I did. I played there for two years, loved my time there, played some really good footy there so I’m grateful for that opportunity as well.

“You get to really focus hard on your craft and I did that and I felt like I was a more confident player coming back here with an extra 50 or 60 games of professional rugby league at the time. I felt like I was a more settled player doing that.”

The Wests Tigers came calling and in 2016 he enjoyed a full season in the NRL.

However, it wasn’t in his familiar position in the halves. Instead he was shifted into the outside backs, playing most of the season on the wing and filling in occasionally at fullback when James Tedesco was unavailable.

“I had to work hard for every game that I played. I played most of the season on the wing and then a handful of games at fullback. I’d never played on the wing before so to get that opportunity under Jason Taylor and to play with some really good players in a club that has such a rich history, I was very happy to do that.”

The following season, despite halfback Mitchell Moses departing mid-season to the Parramatta Eels, Rankin only managed the one first grade appearance. 

Mid-year coaching appointment Ivan Cleary didn’t see Rankin in his plans and once again the Gold Coast junior found himself at a crossroads in his career.

“Then ‘JT’ (Jason Taylor) left the club and Ivan Cleary came in and when the new coach comes in, players aren’t in the plans and I was off contract anyway so that’s when I made the move back to England.”

Return to England

It had worked once before, so why not do it again? Rankin packed his bags for a second time and headed for the UK.

Except this time he wasn’t traveling solo. Joining him was his partner Chloe McCray.

“I’d been there before so it wasn’t as daunting the second time around. But taking someone with you that hasn’t done that before is another hurdle that we had to go through.”

The pair arrived in Huddersfield with Rankin slotting into fullback for the Giants under former Newcastle Knights coach Rick Stone for the remainder of 2017.

He enjoyed an entire season in first grade through 2018, switching between five-eighth, halfback and fullback.

An opportunity then arrived to shift to Castleford where, for the first time in his career, he managed back-to-back full seasons in the top flight.

Like in Huddersfield, Rankin shifted between the halves, fullback and the bench.

Looking back on his second trip to England, Rankin remembers his time fondly.

“We had a really good time over there and we spent the best part of three and a half years there. I played some of my best rugby league over there.”

Before returning to Australia, Rankin and McCray welcomed their first child, a daughter.

“We’ve got a little Yorkshire girl that was born in England so that’s always going to be a thing we cherish and a place that we hold fondly as part of us as well.”

Blue and Gold Mentor

Rankin made his NRL debut in the light blue and yellow of the Gold Coast Titans. Now he plies his trade in the Blue and Gold of the Parramatta Eels.

In recent years the Eels have made a habit of picking up either fringe first graders or players they see something in, and turning them into top line talent.

Nathan Brown, Isaiah Papali’i, Maika Sivo, even captain Clint Gutherson was cast aside by Manly. So it should come as little surprise the Eels saw a determined character in Jordan Rankin. The type of player Brad Arthur likes in his squad.

For the second time in his career he sits behind halfback Mitchell Moses. However, Rankin says he’s comfortable being the mentor of the NSW Cup side, helping to guide through the next generation.

With 160 first grade games, he is far and away the most experienced player in the Eels NSW Cup side.

“I’ve taken a bit of a leadership role and a bit of a mentoring role with these young kids coming through because I’m really passionate about helping them achieve their goals and I’ve been in their position and done all the things that they’re doing.”

One player he is guiding in particular is 18 year old half Jakob Arthur, son of coach Brad and the teenager who has only just debuted in the NRL.

It’s a job particularly suited to Rankin given his own debut at such a young age and the pressure that comes with being a half in the NRL.

“From experience I believe I can help them and help guide them to achieving everything that they want to achieve in the game. 

“We’ve got some really talented, some really good kids that work really hard on their craft and have done some really good things in the juniors and it’s about progressing that from a junior into a competition against men and one of the toughest competitions in the world.”

In recent seasons, Parramatta has put a particular focus on its junior development. Prioritising the juniors within its system and developing them into NRL-quality players. 

The likes of Jordan Rankin, Michael Oldfield and Tim Lafai are in the squad to provide depth to the NRL side, while also mentoring the junior players as they prepare for their own first grade careers.

“These are kids that are going to progress, and they’re going to be really, really good players and they’re going to be something that Parramatta can be very proud of having in the years to come.

“I just hope I can do my part in helping mentor them and getting them into a spot where they’re ready for first grade and that they can take first grade on and take it with both hands when they get their opportunity.”

No giving up

It would be easy for Rankin to believe his NRL dream is over. Despite holding a first grade contract and the Eels recently losing Dylan Brown and Will Smith, he was overlooked for debutant Jakob Arthur in round 10.

He hasn’t played an NRL game since 2017 with the Tigers and only has 40 games to his name in Australia.

But walking away isn’t quite an option yet. Rankin says he’s still got the drive to make it back to the top.

“The number one goal for me is to play first grade footy, that’s what my goal is. I haven’t been playing for as long as I have without the drive to be a professional rugby league player and to play NRL every week if it was given to me.

“I’d never say never to moving clubs if that need be. It just obviously depends on what happens within the plans of Parramatta but I’m really enjoying my time here and time will tell if I get to stay at Parramatta or move onto another opportunity.”

Driving the side

Back to his first match since his return to Australia, and with the Eels facing the Newtown Jets in the New South Wales Cup, Rankin is standing alongside teammates who were in primary school when he made his NRL debut.

Players such as Arthur and Sean Russell who were playing schoolboy rugby league in 2020. 

Rankin is clearly the leader out there. He’s pointing, yelling and directing an inexperienced Eels side around the park.

His pinpoint cross field bomb lands in the hands of NRL rookie Haze Dunster to open the scoring.

He sets up Parramatta’s second try in the same fashion.

In the second half he cuts through the Newtown Jets and sends Nathaniel Roache over. By the end of the match the Eels have held on to be 22-20 winners with Rankin playing a starring role.

Over the ensuing 10 weeks he will be continuously named in the NRL 21 man squad but drop off the extended bench by kick off.

He’ll play each week in NSW Cup as he looks to keep his NRL dream alive.

If he does manage to once again return to first grade, he will well and truly have taken the long way round.


Leave a Reply