Bulldogs made 34,000km mission to sign superstar prop
ANDREW Hill secured one of the most-celebrated contracts in Canterbury's history into his carry-on luggage.
As far as the Canterbury chief executive was concerned, the signature of Super League superstar Luke Thompson was far too valuable to be left out of sight in the cargo hold of Emirates flight EK416 from Manchester to Sydney.
The slab of stapled paperwork was what 12 other NRL chief executives were desperate to have in their possession.
But now, as he reclined his seat back for the 23-hour flight home, Hill closed his eyes knowing that stowed above his head was more than a signed document of intent - it was proof of Canterbury's revival.
Eighteen months after first identifying the St Helens forward as a future Bulldogs target, Hill's 34,000km mission to sign the most talented player in the English Super League was completed last Tuesday when Canterbury announced Thompson was headed to the NRL - and Belmore - in 2021.
The press release stating the England and Great Britain international would soon be a Bulldog marked the beginning of a significant chapter in both the history of the Canterbury club and also the club's progressive two-year rebuild.
"Hopefully when you secure a talent like Luke Thompson, people are starting to see that the Bulldogs are getting their mojo back,'' Hill told The Sunday Telegraph.
"We've persevered and stuck solid and have managed to sign the biggest name in Super League.''
And here's how Canterbury did it.
NRL'S MOST WANTED
"We first started taking note of Luke when he got picked for England (against New Zealand) in the Denver Test in June 2018,'' Hill said.
"And while he didn't play, that was the first time he became on the radar of most clubs. We followed him from there.
"As we understand, there were at least 11 or 12 clubs interested in having a chat.
"It was after the season last year that we started to get serious. I was over in England for a sports leaders conference and, given what Canberra had been able to achieve with their English imports, I took the opportunity to meet a couple of agents.''
Hill introduced himself to the St Helens spearhead in the boardroom of Super League agent Andy Clarke's Wigan office in October.
"It was very informal," Hill said. "Over an hour, I spoke about who we are, our family values, where we're geographically located in Sydney.
"For someone who's living in St Helens thinking about coming to the NRL, you've got to strip it all back.
"I told him he wouldn't be coming to a small club. When you come to Canterbury, you'll be at one of the big NRL clubs. We felt that was important because he was at one of the big clubs in Super League.
"We spoke about our proud history and, of course, the success fellow English forward James Graham had with us and the success of the Raiders boys as well.
"Part of how we go about our recruiting is values and how they see themselves as a person: what their aspirations are; what they want to achieve in the game; what do they do outside of footy; what's their own personal story.
"From a policy point of view, we always try and get to know the person before we start talking contracts or money.
"I left thinking that he was definitely our type of person.''
THIS IS BELMORE
Unaware of how aggressive other clubs including the Tigers, Rabbitohs, Warriors, Titans and Roosters were manoeuvring to recruit Thompson, the Bulldogs wanted to show the 24-year-old how serious they were about him representing the Berries.
The timing of a tour and chance to meet Dogs coach Dean Pay seemed ideal when Thompson arrived in Australia at the end of October as part of Great Britain's touring squad.
However, in a bitter blow for both parties, Thompson suffered tour-ending broken ribs after just 12 minutes in the Lions' 14-6 loss to Tonga.
"We wanted to get him to Belmore, meet Dean, show him around our high-performance facilities and leagues club - but his injury just didn't allow it,'' Hill said.
"We wanted to give him a sense of who we were, but we just weren't able to do that.
So they set about finding other ways to do that.
TALK AND TEXT
Hill spent November in regular contact with Clarke, and in an indication of their desire to secure Thompson, Canterbury submitted their first formal offer. A three-year deal.
For Thompson, it was just one of many offers piled on his kitchen table, with the Warriors and Titans confident and bullish in their approach.
"We were hopeful that things could happen before Christmas, but we got to Christmas and there was still no outcome,'' Hill said.
"There was never any pressure from us. We played the long patient game.
"It's a big move, he's 24. So if he needed time, we were going to give that to him.''
With the northern hemisphere time difference, Hill would wake at 5am to speak with Clarke and Thompson before picking up the phone again to chat with them at 10 that night.
"The time difference is difficult and you get a sense sometimes that you're losing it because it's all being done by the phone,'' Hill said.
HE'S NOT COMING
It was in the second week of January that Hill began to sense that the Bulldogs were firming as Thompson's preferred club.
Thompson had begun to watch Canterbury's matches from 2019, he'd received a call from club legend Terry Lamb and he admitted he could see scope in where the club was headed.
But then, a week later, his loyalty to St Helens and the gulf in making the jump to the NRL was seemingly too far.
"I got a sense he wasn't gong to come to the NRL,'' Hill said. "I got a sense we were losing.
"Andy basically said, St Helens are coming really hard at him and he could stay for a bit longer and worry about (the NRL) after his next contract.
"St Helens would've made him the highest-paid player in their history.
"We thought, 'Oh no.' "
Sensing their big fish was slipping off the hook, Canterbury chair Lynne Anderson decided to phone Mark, Thompson's father.
"That's when Lynne played a role,'' Hill said.
"One of the great values I impressed upon (Thompson) when I first met him in October was that we're all about family.
"And Luke is very close to his family, particularly his dad and his younger brother (Adam).
"Lynne started to talk to Mark and connected with how we see ourselves as the family club.
"We spoke about how our environment would be perfect for him. We've got a history of looking after either country boys, be it decades ago, or more recently a James Graham.
"We started to reconnect around those family values.
"I'd been talking to Luke and Andy, but Lynne, with her history at the club, knew how important it was to illustrate the club's family values.''
TICKET TO RIDE
With twice-daily emails, phone calls and text messages from Hill to Thompson and Clarke, and then Anderson to Mark, the Bulldogs felt they were back in the fight.
They decided to do what they have rarely done before.
"I got off the phone on Wednesday, January 29, and Lynne got off the phone as well and we said, 'Let's book and go there,''' Hill said.
"Over the phone, (Thompson) was expressing he wanted to come on the basis of the family values, but we just felt we couldn't have that connection without sitting face-to-face.
"I felt that Mark needed to meet us. So we booked on Thursday and flew out last Saturday.
"Had we stayed here and not made the effort, maybe he would've been that story of the guy sitting at the end of the pub 20 years down the track, saying, 'I could've done this, but I stayed.'"
Before Hill and Anderson boarded the Emirates flight for Manchester, they needed Thompson to also show just how serious he was about linking with the club.
And this was the moment the Canterbury brains trust knew they would be coming home with a Test forward.
Every player in the NRL must register their personal details into what is called the NRL contract gateway system.
On the Thursday before flying, Hill had asked Thompson to start the ball rolling by registering on the gateway.
A half-hour later, at about 10pm, Hill's phone pinged with a link from Thompson that he'd registered to become an NRL player.
"I slept well that night,'' Hill said.
A taxi collected Hill from his Western Sydney home at 3am last Saturday in order for the CEO and chair to board their 6am flight.
They left Sydney on one of the hottest days of the year, bound for Manchester's brutal temperature of three degrees.
As the duo landed for a fuel stop in Dubai, Hill was alerted to messages from Pay, who had stayed up to watch Thompson play against Salford in the opening round of the Super League earlier that day.
"My coach was getting excited,'' Hill said.
Landing in Manchester at 9pm on Saturday, Hill and Anderson checked into the McDonald Kilhey Court Hotel in Wigan and were asleep by 1am.
"We had everything booked to meet Luke on midmorning Sunday.''
FOOTY AND A FRY-UP
Hill and Anderson met Thompson, Adam and Clarke for brunch at a quaint cafe in Wigan.
"We had a fry-up. Luke didn't have it though - he had poached eggs with avocado and no butter on his toast,'' Hill said.
"That brunch was about giving him everything he needed to know. I wanted him to walk away without any doubt we were the right fit.
"He asked plenty of questions. I learned that he likes fishing and leads a very healthy lifestyle.
"I started to map out when he could get here. We went through every piece of detail.
"We asked him where he wanted to live, how often visitors would be coming over. We went though everything.
"After brunch we went to a local pub for dinner, the Gerrard Arms. It was very relaxed again, but Luke didn't have a beer.
"It was then that I learned he would sign the official contract the next day.
"I'd been keeping the coach (Pay) updated because we all just wanted to know that it was happening.
"On the Sunday night, I got back to the hotel and said, 'He's coming. Just wait until the contract gets signed on the Monday.'
On the Monday afternoon, Hill met Thompson at Clarke's boardroom.
The hard-running forward, who has scored 25 tries in 158 appearances for Saints and helped them win Super League grand final titles, committed to the NRL and Canterbury just after 3pm.
The Thompsons, Hill and Anderson celebrated over sushi at the St Helens star's favourite eatery, Vincent Cafe & Restaurant.
As a gift, Hill gave Thompson a Bulldogs polo shirt over dinner.
"You won't see photo of him in the shirt until he's here with us,'' Hill said.
"We want him to have every success this year and do the right thing by his club.
"In my mind, it was worth the extra effort to sign Luke. That suggests what we think of him.
"We'd been clear with our members that we had to go through a rebuild and 2021 would be when we'd start to see the real fruits.
"Luke clearly sees where we're heading as a club and that's exciting for us all.''
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