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Bird excited to reunite with former coach Flanagan at Dragons

Andrew Mathieson -

Jack Bird and Shane Flanagan have fond memories of their time together, but history in the game suggests less so apart.

They have known each other for close to a decade after a prosperous partnership, but circumstances shaped the parting of ways and the Indigenous talent's tutelage under his Cronulla mentor lasted just the three years.

But with Flanagan's appointment for the 2024 season to the Sharks' arch enemy either side of the roads from the Shire, Bird could find the more things change with St George Illawarra the more they stay the same for the two men.

The future seems a far cry from the time under axed coach Anthony Griffin – the only coach the proud Yuin man has known at the club – after grappling to gain the support from most of the players to back his gameplan.

The back rower was one of Griffin's causalities in the fallout and his form declined to the point of having a red line put through Bird's name and he was accordingly dropped to reserve grade this year.

"It was probably a good wake-up call – I knew that I had to be better," he said while signalling his endorsement of Flanagan in a club press conference on Friday.

"The main thing is I still get to do what I love doing, and that's playing football.

"I think I am a first grader and getting dropped back there … well, hopefully (next) year is going to be a better year for myself and for the team.

"I think 'Flanno' can bring the best out of me and I don't get dropped again."

The Bird that Flanagan has witnessed for the Red V from the stands is hardly the same rookie that gutsed out performances under his once firm but fair taskmaster.

Six years out of a taking control of a NRL program is a long time between jobs and the absence from violating the terms of a 2014 suspension in the wake of the supplements saga has given Flanagan a chance to clear his head and remember the good times.

One famous Sunday evening nearly two years after Bird defected from the St George-Illawarra under-20s just so he could debut in first grade stands out more than any other game for Flanagan.

Nothing has come close to beating that 2016 grand final win in just the second-year player's 49th first grade appearance.

There was the glory from the groundbreaking first premiership of the Sharks, but for the most part there was pain.

Flanagan was left shaking his head in disbelief after watching the 21-year-old centre bravely play through the discomfort of what was feared to be a suspected broken arm.

The assessment down inside the changerooms, following all of the hoopla and when his adrenalin in his body settled down, was later found to be just a dislocated elbow for the selfless ball-player.

As Paul Gallen – who by chance inadvertently fell and hyperextend Bird's arm with 62 minutes left on the clock – once noted that the fearless centre was tough as they come, and was welcomed to pack down in the forwards anytime with his battle-hardened captain.

But that was not even the first act of courage Bird had enacted on a football field.

Even at 16, he faced up to surgery to repair a ruptured ACL in one of his troublesome knees while earlier playing in the SG Ball competition for St George-Illawarra.

Then mysteriously after going under the knife, a shoulder felt buggered where Bird was unable to open a can of soft drink without switching hands, his father Mick Bird once famously said, let along opening up a car door.

It took months on end and countless doctors to find out that the diagnosis was rheumatoid arthritis.

But despite the setbacks that had one of Wollongong's prodigal sons return back home to rejoin the boyhood club in 2021 after a stint in Brisbane, the legendary toughness in his game transpired from playing out wide of the rucks to the back row of the scrum.

The Dragons needed hardness on the edge, but the move has never transformed into better results for either.

Bird has come to a realisation after a mediocre ninth year that this positional change, supposedly in the peak of his career, has been holding the now 28-year-old back.

Flanagan held talks with his once protégé not long after the club's underperforming year came to a close, agreeing to Bird's offer that to rejuvenate his playing days a return to centre is needed to get back to his peak powers of the State of Origin days of 2016-2017.

"I have been training at centre and in the back row, but I would like to get away from the forwards, and get back to the backs," Bird said.

"I've played my best footy under 'Flanno' at centre, so that's where I want to play.

"You have got to believe in yourself, and that's one thing that I do believe in: myself.

"And that I can get back to my best, if not better.

"Like I have said, I am feeling strong and fit, and I have just got to keep improving.

"Obviously, I haven't played centre in a long time, so I have to work hard, but I am feeling fast enough to play centre."

By chance, Bird moved back to the centres in the final round of 2023 season in what was the first time since back-to-back games in rounds 21 and 22 of the year before.

For the record, that is only three appearances starting anywhere in the three-quarters line in his past 36 NRL matches.

The challenge will be there, vying for one of two spots with Moses Suli and possibly Zac Lomax, who may also contest down back against Indigenous fullback Tyrell Sloan.

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