Former NRL star Joel Thompson has announced that he will retire from rugby league after the Super League season ends.

The 32-year-old played 234 NRL games over his career for the Raiders, Dragons, Sea Eagles and captained the Indigenous All Stars team in 2020.

Thompson made the switch earlier this year to Super League club St. Helens on a two-year deal but said his decision to retire was the right one for his family and the club.

“It’s not been an easy decision for me to call time on my career but I do feel the end of the season is the right time to do that,” Thompson said in a statement from the club.

“I will make no secret of the fact that although my short time over here in the UK has been enjoyable for me personally, it has been extremely tough for my family both here and in Australia with everything that is going on right now.

“Family comes first for me and that is ultimately why I am making this tough decision to return home at the end of the year.”

The tough back-rower from the bush hasn’t had an easy run; in 2019 Thompson had a near-death experience at the Koori Knockout where he was said to be found unconscious and airlifted to hospital after falling and hitting his head on a rock.

“I was in the brain ward. I got to go around and speak to families, talk to the people that were in there, and it honestly blew me away. It’s opened my eyes,” Thompson said.

After waking up from an induced coma, he said he considered giving up playing NRL and had a different outlook on alcohol.

“I learned a lot about myself. I had my daughter running up to me in hospital and cuddling me … [I saw] how much I upset my family and my close friends, people who have supported me through my life,” he said.

“My actions, through probably drinking a little bit too much, putting myself in that situation, it woke my soul up, it really did.”

Thompson had many standout moments over his 13-year career, representing the NSW Country side twice, playing for the Indigenous All Stars seven times, and captaining the All Stars once.

When he got the call to captain the Indigenous side last year, Thompson said it was a huge moment for him and his mob.

“It’s not just for myself, it’s for people who have supported me throughout my career and when I was younger,” he said.

“I’m also representing my family and my mob, the Ngiyaampaa people out west, so it’s a proud moment for me and for everyone.”

(L-R) Joel Thompson, Quaden Bayles and Josh Addo-Carr walk onto the field at the 2020 All Stars clash. Photo via Twitter.

Thompson’s advocacy work for the Indigenous community led to him be the recipient of the Ken Stephen Medal in 2016. The medal recognises NRL players who have achieved not just on field but off field with community projects.

Thompson was one of the main voices leading the charge to ban the national anthem in last year’s All Stars clash as well as voicing Clothing the Gaps’ ‘Free the Flag’ campaign after the Aboriginal flag became the only national flag with exclusive licensing and copyright restrictions.

“I’ve got it tattooed on the back of my neck. Do I have to pay for that?” he asked.

“Knowing that there’s restriction around using it — it’s not okay. It shouldn’t be about profit. It shouldn’t be about money. It’s something that should mean more than that.

“It’s something that unites us. It’s a belonging. It’s something that we represent.

“If it’s around health, education, discrimination — there’s so many little battles that we have to fight as people that this is one we shouldn’t be.”

The Super League is set to finish in September.

By Teisha Cloos