Jack Bird has officially inked a two-year extension with St George Illawarra, keeping him at the club until at least the end of 2024.

There had been plenty of back-and-forth over the Dragons-Bird contract saga in recent months, with reports from News Corp as late as Sunday indicating the utility may leave the club.

But on Monday evening, the 27-year-old put pen to paper and revealed his happiness to be remaining with his junior club.

“St George Illawarra is where I first started my career and I’m proud to remain a Dragon,” Bird said.

“The club gave me the chance to come back and play first grade after all the injuries I faced earlier in my career.

“It has been an opportunity I’m grateful for and one that I have enjoyed over the past 18 months particularly with the support of my family and friends close by.”

Bird’s new deal is a great boost for the Dragons, who are beginning to build the nucleus of a side that can feature consistently in finals football in the coming years.

Their improved recruitment and retention philosophy under the guidance of Anthony Griffin and Ben Haran is clear to see, and it holds the Red V in good stead moving forward. 

Red V rushes are over

At the end of 2018, St George Illawarra were coming off a strong campaign that saw them narrowly defeated by South Sydney in the semi-finals, with a stack of big names sidelined or playing through injury.

But then Gareth Widdop – the club’s captain and best player – announced he would be leaving at the end of 2019 to move home to England, leaving the Dragons on the hunt for a new five-eighth.

Instead of being patient, Paul McGregor and Ian Millward opted to throw the proverbial kitchen sink at Corey Norman, who had been told he was unwanted by Parramatta, and signed the playmaker to a rich three-year deal.

And the rest, as they say, is history. The club would fail to make the finals in all three years with Norman at the helm and his contract size crippled their ability to purchase any big names, with million-dollar man Ben Hunt also in the squad.

Things have come a long way since the Norman signing, and a lot of that is due to Griffin and Haran seemingly taking control of the club’s recruitment and retention. Shane Flanagan has also played a role in the club’s recruitment, working as an advisor this year after moving away from the assistant coaching role he held in 2021. 

They have made some tough calls by letting go the likes of Matt Dufty and Tariq Sims, but it has allowed them to invest in youth and attract representative stars.

Griffin and company were patient in their search for big names, refused to pay massive overs and their patience saw them land the likes of Francis Molo, Jaydn Su’A, Moses Suli and Moses Mbye on solid deals – and all four players have delivered since arriving. 

They haven’t got every recruitment decision right – Andrew McCullough and Aaron Woods are two players who have failed to fire for the Dragons – but the patience and philosophy that Griffin has brought to building back the club’s roster can’t be understated. 

“You’re always in the market with your list,” Griffin said on NRL 360.

“We have done a lot of work internally, signing a lot of our younger players and re-signing guys like (Blake) Lawrie and Bird. With the salary cap, there’s only so much to go around.

“At the moment, we’re probably where we want to be for this year and over the next month or so, we’ll have a look at starting to look to 23 and 24.”

When head coach Griffin alludes to the ‘younger players’ in the Dragons’ squad, he is talking about the likes of Mat Feagai, Cody Ramsey, Jayden Sullivan and Tyrell Sloan – all players of great promise and with potentially 10-year futures in the NRL. 

To have the ability to be patient when signing or re-signing players is vital to keeping the salary cap in order and not having quality players squeezed out or fall by the wayside.

Look at a club like South Sydney, who have lost their halfback and two Origin stars due to salary cap issues, and have gone from a grand final side to a likely bottom-eight franchise. 

Bird’s extension is a further indication of the good work Griffin and Haran are doing in Wollongong. The second-rower had interest from rival clubs, who were likely to either offer him more money or a greater chance of immediate success, but the Dragons never hit the panic button. 

In the end, all parties came to a two-year agreement worth a reported $1.1 million, which is reasonable money for a player of Bird’s ability and stature in the game. 

Why Bird is the word for coach Hook

By the age of 22, Bird had already won a premiership and represented NSW.

Unfortunately, his time at the Broncos on a large pay packet was crippled with knee injuries and his return to the Dragons raised some eyebrows.

In a tough 2021 campaign for the Dragons, Bird was among the club’s best performers and looked right at home in the centres. However, the addition of Moses Suli has seen Bird move closer to the ball, playing in both the second-row and five-eighth positions this year.

Bird hasn’t been at his best in a lot of games this year, but what he brings is invaluable experience. In the current Dragons’ top squad, he is one of two players to win a competition alongside George Burgess, and one of just seven players to feature in a grand final. 

And that’s exactly why Griffin was so keen to keep the utility on board for another two years.

“Birdy is a great player and a good club man,” he said.

“The good thing about him, as you have seen this year, he can play anywhere. He’s invaluable and he is already a premiership winner.

“He knows what the back-end of the season looks like…we need guys like him. For our club at the moment it is really important, because obviously we haven’t been there for a while.

“We’re pushing a lot of younger guys through, so to have guys like Bird and (Ben) Hunt that have won or got to grand finals, it’s really important for us.”

Bird has 115 games of first grade experience to his name, but with plenty of football hopefully ahead of him, there’s no reason we haven’t seen the best of him yet.

Head of football Ben Haran described Bird as a popular member of the playing group who will continue to add value on and off the field.

“Jack is an out-and-out footballer, a proven winner and a fantastic competitor who has, and will continue to add, great value to the team over the coming seasons,” Haran said.

“Jack is a great character around the club and his retention is a win for everyone involved at the Dragons, including our passionate Red V members and partners.”

What’s next for Dragons and Griffin?

St George Illawarra are fighting like beavers to remain in the finals picture midway through their 2022 campaign, producing four wins from their past six games, including a nail-biter on Anzac Day against the Roosters.

The roster isn’t quite perfect, but there’s enough there to make fans believe they are on an upwards trajectory after a rather lean decade since Wayne Bennett’s departure as coach.

Griffin believes his side aren’t far away from competing with the top-four sides, but it all comes down to one magic word: consistency.

“I don’t think we’re that far at all – we have been inconsistent and that has been our downfall this year…I think that will build to consistency,” he said.

“I think we’re building…the last four or five weeks has been really good. The one at Magic Round (golden-point loss to Titans) really hurt, we beat ourselves – if we won that one, we’d be two points outside the top-four.

“For this year, the finished product for us is to be able to finish really strongly and win a lot of games at the back-end of the year and enjoy doing that and embrace the pressure.

“For 2022, that’s the main goal for us. We have had a little bit of a rough start, but we are starting to get to know ourselves a bit and we want to finish the season really strong.”

Griffin will have plenty more tough decisions to make at the recruitment and retention table in the next six months.

He says the club are ‘always in the market’ to sign players from elsewhere, but they also have some important players that will need to be offered new deals.

Ben Hunt and Junior Amone are both off-contract at the end of 2023, making them available to sign with another club from November 1 this year. 

As for the end of this year, Josh McGuire is a man that Griffin will no doubt be keen to extend for at least another season. 

Andrew McCullough has another year to run on his deal, but his performances at hooker have been underwhelming and it’s a position the club need to address. Jeremy Marshall-King and Sam Verrills are two names that spring to mind and will be likely looking for a new home in 2023, and both men would instantly improve the Dragons in attack. 

But if you look across the Dragons’ squad, the foundation is there. Su’A, Molo, de Belin and Bird are all there until the end of 2024, while the likes of Suli and Zac Lomax out wide are locked in. Young guns in Ramsey, Sloan, Feagai and Sullivan are all long-term prospects that the Dragons have signed up.

Griffin has a way to go before the Red V are premiership contenders once again – but his patient approach on and off the field sees them heading in the right direction. 

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