Establishing himself in a star-studded Wests Tigers team that was challenging for a premiership, Blake Ayshford thought success would just keep coming.
But after being knocked out of the 2011 finals by the Warriors - something he's still dirty about today - Ayshford never featured in another playoffs match before retiring last year.
Still, he enjoyed a career that many would envy. The talented centre, whose later years were hampered by a back injury, played 174 NRL games for the Tigers, Sharks and Warriors across 11 seasons.
Now working for Sky Sports as well as keeping busy with podcasts and coaching, Ayshford relived his playing memories including how he fell out of love with the game and rediscovered his passion.
Legend Q&A: Blake Ayshford
You had a great junior career, winning the Arrive Alive Cup with Endeavour High School in 2006, making the Junior Kangaroos in '07 and then being crowned the inaugural Wests Tigers Toyota Cup Players' Player of the Year in '08. Your memories?
At school I was still with the Roosters but I didn't really see a pathway for myself there. It was unreal to go to a school like Endeavour. We had Dave Howlett - one of the assistant coaches of Cronulla, we've got Brad Kelly and we've got Jeff Hardy, who's played a lot of first grade.
And they're teaching you how to play rugby league, to learn the basics. So I had a leg up on a lot of kids. The best thing about those junior days ... is I still talk to a lot of those boys, they're my best mates. You wonder why our team was so good, well, we went to school, trained in the morning and then on weekends I think about seven or eight of us played together in a junior comp.
I was lucky enough to be with the Tigers and I almost got a taste [of NRL] when I was 18, straight out of school, but Benny Te'o got that first shot. To go back and play 20s that first year [of the Toyota Cup], that was stacked. Penrith had six or seven or eight players that played first grade. There was never another year like that.
The Junior Kangaroos ... I don't know if too many people remember, but Israel Folau was supposed to be in that Junior Kangaroos team. Someone got ruled out of the top side and he went from Junior Kangaroos to the top team, which made a spot. So I was lucky enough to get on that little tour.
Some of the players we had in that team as well ... Chris Lawrence, who just brought 250 games up and announced his retirement; Michael Jennings, who is still carving up at an old age; Tim Mannah; Trent Hodkinson; Tony Williams. We had a stacked team.
What do you remember about debuting against the Broncos in 2009?
I was 18th man the week before and I had an inkling that I might be a shot. Then Tim Sheens told me he was going to play me at centre. I was nervous but the best thing for me was that my debut game was actually John Skandalis's comeback game for the Tigers.
So if there was going to be any pressure or spotlight on me it took everything off and I got to go straight under the radar. I remember scoring a try off Daine Laurie coming across field to get us in the lead. I was over the moon and walking back I was still pumped and Sheensy hooked me! It was a very eventful debut.
The Tigers had a special squad in 2010 and '11 but went out in the prelim and then semi-final. Was that tough to take and do you feel that team should have won a title?
Yeah, mate. Especially working over here now [in New Zealand], they put a flashback on the 2011 Warriors-Tigers [semi-final where the Warriors, who finished sixth, beat the Tigers 22-20 despite being flogged by the Broncos in week one of the finals under the McIntyre system. They went on to make the grand final].
The next year they changed the rule to first versus fourth, fifth versus eight. You can tell I'm still upset about it because players have gone on to play in grand finals, play in more semi-finals, but for me, that was my last taste.
I still feel like the team we had in 2010 ... you go through names that we had like Robbie Farah, Benji Marshall, Gareth Ellis, Liam Fulton. I can just keep going, mate. The whole team was made up of real good blokes and we were all tight-knit, which made it even better.
This is where I took it for granted, because me coming straight into a winning culture in 2010, 2011, I thought 'how good's this?' First grade's good, it's not that hard. There are hard games but we're winning and I'm having fun and enjoying myself, having a beer and having a laugh. Doing what I love to do and getting paid for it.
You said we should have won a comp and you're right, mate. We probably should have been on the other side of the grand final in 2010. When we lost to the Roosters [in extra-time] in the first final, we probably should have won that and taken the path they did. And then 2011, leading the Warriors and to get beat the way we did wasn't fun. But not at any time did I think we weren't going to be back.
Going from the precipice of a premiership to being at Cronulla in 2014 amid the fallout from their ASADA scandal must have been hard?
I got warned not to sign with the Sharks because of [the] ASADA [scandal]. But me being myself, I sort of didn't listen to anyone. I was like ... no one's been [sanctioned], why would they bring it out a year-and-a-half, two years later?
I took for granted what I had at the Tigers. I loved that club and still do today. I support the boys that are playing there. I talk now and then to Benji and Chris Lawrence. I still talk to Robbie and all those boys from then.
Moving to the Sharks, it was a weird time because Benji had left the Tigers, we had a new coach - Sheensy wasn't there. And then at the Sharks, as soon as those sanctions got brought down, we had a NSW Cup team we were playing with. A lot of the boys hadn't played first grade, I think we had a lot of debutants that year and didn't handle it too well.
I think that was the first year I got dropped as well and I didn't handle it too well, to be honest. At the Sharks I sort of blew out in weight, sort of didn't really train as hard. Was sort of happy with what I'd done in the NRL in previous years and I was sort of getting sick of footy.
There was a lot that happened and was said. I copped a bit of criticism which was all good, you've got to take the good with the bad. I was sort of over rugby league after my stint at the Sharks.
We still were a pretty close bunch [at Cronulla]. The boys that came in to do a job, we'd all be together and we were fine. But our coach [Shane Flanagan] got [stood down] before the year, Peter Sharp was our coach and left halfway through the year and then we had James Shepherd. The vibe around training was good, but there were times you just can't win footy games. We just got outclassed in most games.
What was it that convinced you to continue in the NRL with the Warriors in 2016? I read you were considering rugby union and Super League as well.
I had a chat with a couple of Super League clubs at the time. I had contact with Super Rugby but no one could do a deal because they didn't know who was returning from the World Cup. So I was still waiting for that and happy to go because I had played some union at school and I'd had enough of rugby league and wanted to try something else.
But Andrew McFadden [Warriors coach at the time] rang me and convinced me. He said, 'There's a spot over here for you. You're not going to get given the spot, but you can come and work for it and we'll see how you go.' I spoke to my wife, she's from New Zealand but never thought she'd go back.
It helped me out with everything. I came over with an open mind. I dropped seven or eight kilos, lost some skinfolds and was in really good shape. I sort of found my joy back for rugby league being over here and playing off Shaun Johnson. It was like playing off Benji Marshall or players like that, they've got that bit of flair. It just made me love my footy again.
When you're in Australia in Campbelltown or Leichhardt or the Cronulla area, it's all rugby league crazy so everyone knows who you are ... If you have a bad game you try and hide in the hood. People can get at you. Over here, they love their rugby league but it's nowhere near reported enough and you can't find criticism unless you go looking for it.
Being over here made me grow up and mature a bit more mentally and family-wise. I was pretty bad like I said at the Sharks and neglected a lot of things. Over here it's such a family club. I got to spend more time with my kids and become more of a father. And the boys that I played with over here were awesome too. Always smiling, always laughing. That's one of the reasons why I decided to stay over here, I loved it so much.
I'm happy with what I did in the game. Looking back now, there's things I could have done better and could have done more in teams, as in win comps or play more games. But I look back now and there's people who don't even make it and I was lucky enough to play a lot of games.
How are you enjoying retirement and working as a Warriors reporter for Sky Sports?
Being someone who dived straight out of school into the first-grade system, I never really studied. Paul Gallen spoke to us at a retirement thing last year about doing something we're passionate about - and there's nothing I'm really passionate about like I am rugby league.
I tried to get into coaching and things like that and I'm still helping coach men's and women's teams on weekends and during the week, so my schedule is still pretty busy over here.
And then working with Sky, I'm doing a thing called Warriors TV where Warriors and Sky have collaborated. It's sort of trying to get someone in the ranks who can get something out of the boys where it's not cliche because they're confronted by the media and go into their shell. Because I've been there for the last four, five years, I know all the boys and still talk to them all.
It's been difficult this year with what's going on [with the Warriors being based in Terrigal amid the COVID-19 pandemic] but I'm doing that. And I'm also doing a sort of vlogcast with a bloke named Marc Peard. It's the Marc Peard Podcast and we go on every Thursday night.
It's been awesome, we started it during lockdown and we've got a studio in Eden Park now. When games and things are going on we can do our live vlogcast out of there and have a chat to players. We've spoken to Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara. We've had Joseph Parker on, we've even had some NRL players like Blake Green and Shaun Johnson. We had Val Holmes on as well, which was awesome to talk about the NFL. And even Michael Buffer, the 'let's get ready to rumble' guy.
Rd 25: TRY Blake Ayshford (49th min)