It was 5.45am on Thursday.
Josh Reynolds was driving to Concord for his first training session with the Wests Tigers just 24 hours after touching down in Sydney following his trip to the United States.
Then it hit him.
“I don’t know if it was a panic attack or what, but I honestly had a bit of anxiety,” Reynolds told NRL.com.
“The thought of meeting new people, doing new things … it got me. I get a bit anxious sometimes and I overthink things. And about 15 minutes away from the ground, that’s what I started doing.”
Reynolds talks from the heart. Plays from it, too.
Sometimes that brings out the best in him. Other times, it gets the better of him.
The Wests Tigers, under the Ivan Cleary regime, have moved to build a roster that competes. A roster that doesn’t go missing. Players who choose to be effective over pretty.
Reynolds fits that build to a tee. He’s played in grand finals and Origins – all the things one day worth telling the grandkids.
Yet the 28-year-old still can’t shrug this sense of dissatisfaction with what he’s accomplished as he enters the next chapter of his career at the Wests Tigers.
“I don’t want to be sitting there in 20 years and say I did a couple of good things,” Reynolds said sitting in the stands at Concord Oval in his first week at the joint venture club.
“My career has been crazy. Early on I got to a grand final and got lucky enough to play Origin and stuff. But now I have dropped out of that whole equation. It’s made me really have a think about things. Why not aim high? Why not try to be like the Thurstons and Cam Smiths and play good footy week in and week out. They’re not superhuman. I can do it too.
“I’m not saying I can be as good as them, but for my standard, why can’t I be consistently the best I can be? I just want to give this club everything I’ve got. For them to give me a four year deal – it just feels so good to be wanted. It’s a really nice feeling and I want to repay them for what they have done for me.”
Right time for change
Reynolds is where he wants to be. Maybe not where he wanted to be if you asked him six months ago, but things have since changed.
The anger has subsided. The emotion has worn out. And the reality of having to step out of his comfort zone into foreign surroundings has him buzzing with excitement.
“I was angry, don’t get me wrong,” he said.
“I was angry at certain people because I never wanted to leave. But now that I’m here, I’m starting to realise how much I needed this change in my life.”
In Tiger town, what’s old is new again this summer. There are some familiar faces returning home, none more so than Benji Marshall.
But don’t be mistaken. The face of the club won’t be the man who once wore the No.6 jersey, but he who will wear it next season.
Reynolds knows it too. He’s the big off-season signing with the equally big price tag and expectation to match.
“I know if I have a couple of bad games people are going to say ‘oh, he’s not worth the money’,” Reynolds says.
“I’d be deadest lying if I said I didn’t feel the pressure of living up to it.”
But that pressure won’t be coming from within. Reynolds was only a few hours into his tenure at the Tigers when Ivan Cleary put his mind at ease.
“I hope Ivan doesn’t get angry at me for telling you this, but he said something in a meeting that took a bit of the pressure off me straight away,” Reynolds said.
“He said: ‘the superstar of our team is the team’. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel because I’m definitely no superstar. I’m happy to admit that.”
"Ivan said to me: ‘the superstar of our team is the team’. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel..." — Josh Reynolds
No more second-guessing
For the most part of 2017, Reynolds looked a shadow of the player that once led Canterbury to two grand finals and helped NSW to a drought-breaking State of Origin series triumph.
It wasn’t the fact he was leaving. “I’m not that sort of guy who will give up,” he said.
But everyone could see that it just wasn’t working for the Bulldogs. And the robotic and somewhat predictable style of football that then coach Des Hasler enforced ate away at the very thing that made Reynolds so successful in the early part of his career.
“I was trying to be someone I wasn’t,” Reynolds said.
“Someone I never will be. I was being influenced by people around me and I thought I was losing my best attributes. I was losing what got me here in the first place. Do you know what I mean? When I was young and coming through you just back yourself so much. I’d be like, ‘you know what, I’m going to do this’. And it might not come off that time, but the next time it will.
“I was thinking about what pass to play or what kick to put in this position. Second guessing yourself is the worst thing you can do. And doubt – I definitely had doubt last year. But Ivan said to me in one of our first meetings that he just wanted me to come in and be Josh Reynolds. That was honestly one of the things that got me over the line. I think I needed to hear that. I don’t want to be Thurston. I can’t be. They are a class above, mate. But for the Tigers to put that faith in me, I needed that.”
Reynolds has been so nervous about joining the Tigers, he messaged a few of the players he knew to express how he was feeling.
Reassurance is what he was after.
“You would think they would try and make me feel better,” Reynolds joked.
“I was telling them ‘man, I’m heaps nervous’, just to get them to tell me ‘nah man you’ll be sweet’. But no one was saying that.”
Driving a new culture
Reynolds is aware of the perception of him among those who don’t know him. He knows there might be players inside the club’s Concord headquarters who may not like him. But the ‘grub’ nickname he gained for his competitiveness on the field isn’t an accurate representation of a player considered by those he plays with as the ultimate teammate.
When he signed with the Tigers he reached out to Luke Brooks. He told him he wasn’t coming to take over. That he was coming to be the foil Brooks needed to finally live up to the potential his talent should have yielded by now.
“When I signed, I messaged him to tell him how happy I was to play with him next year,” Reynolds said.
“The thing I mentioned to him is that I think he will thrive because I said ‘you just steer the ship’. That’s when he is at his best. Because he is a genuine half. I feel like I’m a genuine five-eighth. I feel like we can get this combination going where he sets it all up and I just play off the back off it. I really think it will work.
“With him and Mitch Moses, given they came through at the same time and both probably wanted to be the more dominant person. And you do. When you’re younger you want to create your own identity and prove yourself. But I’m at a stage in my career where that doesn’t bother me and I can say ‘you be dominant, mate, and whatever you do I’ll go with. Just make sure you back yourself’. I feel like he can be a really good player, man. Honestly. You can tell he has all the attributes and hopefully I can help bring that out in him.”
Most will judge the Reynolds signature by results. And rightly so.
But the Wests Tigers paid for more than just a footballer.
They paid for a fighter. They paid for a selfless mentality.
They paid for a face of the club. But they also paid for a man who will drive a culture that the Tigers have been yearning for since its glory days.
“As long as people in here know we’re all one team and we’re all on the same level, whether you’ve played 40 Origins or debuting,” he said.
“That’s probably the best culture to create. That’s what I want to be a part of.”
This article first appeared on NRL.com