Life after professional sport is something the modern game emphasises. Clubs have realised it is their responsibility to ready players for life after sport.
Rugby league legend Ben Galea is a golden example of a player who has transformed success on the field to success in business.
Benjamin Aaron Galea was born on August 16, 1978. He grew up in the working class suburb of Toongabbie, one-of-five children.
“I started playing Rugby League when I was seven years old – for Seven Hills and Toongabbie. I played in my cousin’s team (1 year up in the under 9’s).
“When I was nine I started playing for Blacktown Workers in the Under 10s and I played there right up until the under 18s or C grade I think it was called back then. In 1995 I won the Penrith District player of the year and made my first ever rep team for the Panthers.
Even though he wanted Rugby League to be a career, he always realised it was a specialty vocation that could only last a limited time. He knew having an education was vital for “life after footy”. About that time, while he was at Doonside High he was offered a scholarship by John Paul II School at Marayong.
“Moving over to JP gave me a totally new attitude on life. I learnt about respect and treating people the right way. I can honestly say that that was the biggest turning point in my life and is the reason I am the person I am today and had (all) the success I have.”
In 1996 Ben was given an amazing opportunity: “I was selected to play for the Australian Schoolboys and was made co-captains with Nathan Cayless and Owen Craige. We toured to PNG and having never been outside NSW, let alone Australia, it was an eye opener to say the least. At that time, it was the proudest moment in my life.”
The confidence gained from that opportunity stood him in good stead as he progressed to junior grade rugby, joining the Balmain Tigers while working at Westpac with his best mate Simon Gwynne. When he wasn’t training Ben was gaining valuable experience as a banker. “All through my career Simon told me that when I finished with footy, I should come and work with him.”
Three years later, as he played his final season with the Tigers as Reserve Grade captain, the league was in flux and change was on the horizon, with mergers expected.
Galea becomes a Wests Tigers legend
“When the Tigers [and Magpies] decided to merge it was obviously a very nervous time for all the players involved… For me personally it came at a fairly good time. I had a great year in 1999: I was the captain of the Reserve Grade team and had probably my best season ever. I was reasonably confident that I would make the [senior] squad for the merger in 2000.”
By 2005 when Wests Tigers won the NRL Premiership 30-18 over North Queensland Cowboys at Sydney Olympic Park, Ben was a key member of the team.
“It was like a fairy-tale! Nothing you say can describes the feeling of what it’s like to play out a full season as hard as the NRL is and come out the number 1 team for that year.
“It has built a bond between that playing group that is like no other I have experienced before or after; we are like brothers. Our pre-season that year had a special feeling about it: we trained harder than I had ever [done] before. We were young and fast and had a lot of young players that played an exciting brand of footy … eg Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah.
“Most of the other teams were playing a power game. We based ours on speed and fitness.
“Halfway through the season we were just outside the 8 and needed something to change [so] we all started doing more extras and working on our individual weaknesses. We had a big blackboard at training and every time we done something extra we put it on the board for everyone else to see. It built our confidence and trust in each other because we all seen how hard each other was working! Not long after that we won 8 or 9 in a row and cemented ourselves in the top 4.
“At the end of that run our confidence was sky high and we all believed that if we played our best no one could beat us!”
The rest is history.
“We partied like you’ve never seen! We couldn’t buy a beer in Balmain; it was unbelievable! It was the first time ever that they had to close Victoria Road because of the crowds.”
In 2007, after a disagreement with coach Tim Sheens, Ben made the tough decision to leave his beloved Wests Tigers and play overseas.
“I was devastated that I couldn’t stay with the club but unfortunately it wasn’t to be… I had to decide whether I wanted to play for another NRL club or move overseas. I chose the [UK Super League] as I never really wanted to play against the Tigers after spending nine years there.
“I loved my time in the UK; I played some of my best footy over there and made some lifelong friends along the way. [While there] I graduated from a few courses… they were all based around training and coaching Rugby League. I completed my qualifications in strength and conditioning and Level 2 Coaching.”
Ben retired from elite league in 2013, still a respected competitor, and decided to resume his career in finance as an independent broker for United Financial Services in Australia. He spent his first few months back studying his Level 3 in Finance and “crash-coursed on all the lenders”.
But he remains close to league, and has secured a gig as video referee for NRL first grade. The League’s refereeing department told The Newsroom the NRL has earmarked Ben for advancement through the refereeing ranks.
Ben can look back on his playing career with pride. “I was very fortunate to play with some of the best ever… The most talented was probably Benji Marshall or Owen Craige. But the person I enjoyed playing with most and the one that had the biggest influence on me was Mark O’Neill.
“When I joined the Tigers I was a hooker. Mark taught me a lot about the skills needed to be a good backrower but also a lot about attitude training and respect. I learnt as much from him about how to act off the field as I did about how to act on.” Ben has become renowned as a hard man on the field and a gentleman off the field.
Ben’s stellar career included 284 games at the highest level playing with some of the eras greatest athletes; he also played for City in the 2001 City versus Country Origin match. It’s been a long haul from the days when his mum struggled to raise five kids on her own, but he’s persevered and shown the temperament and diligence to succeed in his new career. His charismatic personality has helped make him a role model who has influenced and motivated others to succeed.
“The best advice I can give anyone is that no matter what you decide is right for you, make sure it’s fun and if you give it 100 per cent you will succeed. [Then] at the end of each day you can look yourself in the mirror and say I did everything I could today to make it work. Have a happy life and don’t take things too seriously.”
Ben is a dedicated husband to his teenage sweetheart and now wife of more than a decade, Julia, with whom he has had two children. There’s another on the way. Life is deservedly sweet for this Western Sydney kid from struggle street who’s done his family and country proud. – Jesse Mullens
Top photo by Julia Galea.