O’Hagan: “I’m pumped to get over there!”
After signing terms with the Knights for 2021, Australian half-back Brendan O’Hagan is not a man fazed by the prospect of moving to the other side of the world to continue his rugby league career.
A player hailing from such pedigree having had spells with three NRL teams, 21-year-old O’Hagan, included in NSW State of Origin squads at under 16s, 18 and 20s level, admitted he has had a rugby ball in his hands for as long as he can remember.
“I was a Newcastle Knights junior so I started in their high-performance unit when I was fourteen through to eighteen and then I signed with Canberra Raiders,” he revealed, adding that he moved to the Australian capital and lived there for two years.
“I first started playing properly when I was five, just for my local side, and then I played a lot of representative touch rugby when I was younger, as well. I played for NSW a few times in the 12s, a couple of years of 15s but then I stopped because footy got too serious,” he shared.
His spell with Canberra coincided with their 2019 run to the NRL Grand Final, a time O’Hagan described as a great one. “It was a great experience to be in and around that and see what the Finals Footy is like here in Australia which was cool,” he acknowledged.
On his move to Canberra as a teenager, a move which may have fazed many, O’Hagan stated that, while there were initial challenges, he has no regrets. “I was nineteen when I moved to Canberra but I moved out at seventeen when I moved to Newcastle,” he said. “Canberra’s about four hours from where I grew up so, yeah, there were tough parts, but I loved my time down there. It was a really good place and all the boys were really good, they made the transition pretty easy for me,” he added.
One of those teammates is one O’Hagan name-dropped as an individual he consulted and sought advice from before agreeing to join the Knights for next season. “I’ve been speaking a fair bit to John Bateman about it because he’s from Bradford,” he half-back explained. “I spoke to him, trying to get what it’s like over there and he had some great things to say about the place of York and the club as well so, yeah, he helped me make my decision as well,” O’Hagan continued.
While he has had discussions with NRL and England star Bateman, O’Hagan was training alongside a clutch of further England stars with Josh Hodgson, Ryan Sutton and Elliot Whitehead all being in the Canberra squad while the half-back was there. “It was good for them, having an English group there, so they settled in really well. Canberra’s a cold place so I feel like it’s a bit like home for them as well, rather than being in Northern Australia.
2019 also saw O’Hagan playing and training alongside some high-quality half-backs, one of whom is currently starring in Super League and one who has previously played for Wakefield Trinity, both of whom, last season, were with O’Hagan at Canberra. “I was working with Aidan Sezer and Sam Williams a lot over there and then, in 2019, Jack Wighton moved into the halves which was pretty cool to watch, watching the transition from full-back to the halves which he has excelled at massively,” he outlined.
Learning under a former international half-back in the shape of Ricky Stuart, Canberra’s head coach, was also of great value to O’Hagan. “He was really good. Because he was a half, he’d be pretty harsh on us and he’d know exactly what he wanted. He pushed us a lot so that helped me heaps,” he explained.
Despite not playing in the NRL for Canberra, O’Hagan was a regular for the Raiders’ feeder club The Mounties in the NSW Cup, one of Australia’s reserve grade competitions. “Predominantly it was me and Sam [Williams] in the halves for most of the season, then Aidan [Sezer] dropped down for a couple of weeks as well,” he commented before describing how competitive and high quality that competition is. “Both Aidan and Sam Williams were in there, Michael Oldfield (formerly of Catalans Dragons), he played over in Super League and was our centre or full-back.
“Tom Starling (eight appearances and four tries for Canberra in 2020), he’s now in the NRL and was playing in that competition. There’s plenty of teams who drop NRL players into reserve grade, like Stephen Crichton [eleven appearances and four tries for Penrith this season] who’s killing it now for Penrith in the centres. Jarome Luai (twelve appearances and six tries for Penrith in 2020), also, who’s now playing for Penrith,” O’Hagan listed. “Most of the players in the NRL have gone through that pathway and it’s a very strong comp because you’re always getting change in the first-grade side so there’s always players dropping back and forth,” he justified.
This year saw O’Hagan move to another NRL club in the form of Wests Tigers and, despite his season being cut short due to Covid-19 enforced limitations, he did get the chance to train alongside one of his childhood idols. “I signed full-time with Wests Tigers for this year but then Covid hit and the club had to limit their bubble,” he noted. “I was training alongside Benji Marshall, though, and that was really good.
“Benji was always everyone’s favourite player, he was great to watch, so it was pretty cool to watch him in his element, getting tips here and there,” he explained. Adding that fellow halves Luke Brooks and Chris Lawrence were also a great player to learn off, O’Hagan added a man who broke English rugby league hearts in 2013 as another player he looks up to.
“Players like Shaun Johnson, the typical steppy players, doing all the big things, they’re players I really like,” he expressed. “As I grew older, I started watching Johnathan Thurston and all the other halves that could just clutch a game at any time.”
Coming over to the UK is a move which may faze other players but O’Hagan isn’t fazed by the move, perhaps aided by the fact he has some extended family close by. “Both of my parent’s fathers were both in Ireland or Northern Ireland,” he shared. “I’ve got heaps of family in Leeds, my dad’s side of the family, as well. I’ve never met them but it’ll be great to get over there and finally meet them and experience some stuff over there,” he explained.
On the transition to the UK and what he expects as potential challenges, O’Hagan said: “The weather is going to be a no-brainer, that’s probably going to be the biggest change, that and being so far away from home but, once that all settles in and I’m used to it, I’ll be fine.”
Reasoning that he has moved away from home before when he has moved clubs, he reasoned that “the transition to Canberra, from where I grew up, was big. I had to adapt to the different weather, it was a lot colder when I first moved down there, so I’ve had to adapt to change before so I don’t think it’ll be too hard for me to do it again in the UK.”
Discussing targets for next season and what Knights fans can expect to see from himself in the amber and black, O’Hagan’s ambitions are clear. “The target is to win the comp, I want to go over there to win, I don’t want to lose. I don’t think anybody likes to lose and, if you do, I don’t think you should be playing sport,” he emphasised.
“I’m a dominant half, I like to guide teams around and I like to run the ball,” he said when asked about the sort of game York supporters can expect from him in 2021. “I really feel the style of play in the UK, free-flowing footy, really suits me.
“I like to think I’ve got a bit of pace and a decent kicking game so, hopefully, I can get over there, keep working in all of that and be an asset to the side.”
Further to that, O’Hagan’s eagerness to get to York and to get started with the Knights was clear. “I’m pumped to get over there, start ripping in and get ready to win a comp,” he enthused. “Speaking with John Bateman, I’ve heard great things about the city and obviously the new facilities we have there are awesome,” he acknowledged before becoming the latest new recruit to highlight the regard head coach James Ford is held in. “I’ve heard great things about Fordy and, having had small chats with him about game plans and structural things, I’m really excited to learn off him and excel my game off the back of him,” O’Hagan said.
Away from rugby league, O’Hagan noted that his main interests revolve around sport, in no small part due to being something of a ‘Sport Billy’ from being a child. “My whole family is pretty sporty,” he revealed. “All the girls play touch rugby or netball and all the boys have played rugby, all the junior stuff, so I’m from a pretty sporty family.
Now, though, there is a sport which keeps him very busy away from rugby. “I’m a massive golfer, I love it,” he revealed. “I try to play a couple of times a week.”
“I’m definitely bringing my clubs over,” he added, acknowledging his keenness to bring his handicap down and to sample the range of golf courses there are around York and, indeed, Yorkshire.