Bulldogs second-rower Hayden Jaeger’s separation from the club was longer than he expected – much longer.
“I only planned on having a year off and coming back,” he said. “And I actually got back into motorbike racing [motocross speedway] again and just kind of hung up the footy boots for a while and didn’t have much interest in it.”
Some six years after playing his last game for Gunnedah, in their under-18 side, Jaeger has laced up again as part of the Bulldogs’ undefeated, table-topping first-grade side, which takes on North Tamworth at Jack Woolaston Oval on Sunday.
Adding to his joy at again playing the sport he excelled at as a junior is the presence in the side of his big brother, Reece, a former Sydney Roosters and South Sydney under-20 player who returned to Gunnedah this year after a lengthy stint playing in Wollongong.
Bulldogs coach Sean Hayne said: “Hayden Jaeger gives us size and some speed and footwork on the right edge. He has formed a good combination with [five-eighth] Matt Brady.”
Jaeger would also love the chance to form a good right-side combination with Reece, 26, a left centre.
“I’ve tried to con him to come over [to the right edge],” Jaeger said, “but he reckons he’s always played left side.”
Apart from a sporadic season of footy with Boggabri in 2016, where he linked with his first cousins Heath and Blake McIlveen, Jaeger was lost to the sport. The chance the play with Reece again was a main motivating factor for putting on the boots again, he said. They had lined up together at high school.
“Because he said if he ever moved home he’d play with me,” Jaeger said, adding that he was “proud” to play with his big brother this year.
“It’s good to run out with family,” he said, “and also have young Blake [McIlveen] back in the club as well … I'm hoping by the end of the year he can step up and have a few games of first grade with us, so we’ll have the three of us family members together.”
Jaeger said a youth injection was benefiting the Bulldogs this season. He regards North Tamworth and Kootingal-Moonbi as the side’s main threats.
He said: “There’s a lot of blokes who have come back to town who used to live here. That’s definitely an advantage.”
Watching Gunnedah take on Norths on Sunday will be Brian Jaeger – a former Bulldog and Roo, himself, and a proud father.
“He’s always followed us [he and Reece] with the footy … He’s always been 200 per cent supportive of us,” Jaeger said.