Wighton opens up on ‘rollercoaster’ year… and reveals ‘confronting’ moment in Raiders exit

Jack Wighton has opened up on the “confronting” moment his time as a Raider came to an end and his desire to prove people wrong as he prepares for his first season at the Rabbitohs.

The 30-year-old also confirmed what position he’ll play and when he’ll make his club debut amid confusion around his four-game suspension.

Two months into his new chapter, Wighton sat down with foxsports.com.au for his first interview as a Rabbitoh.

He summed up the last year as a “rollercoaster” and reflected on his shock decision to leave the Raiders.

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“Just sitting here is a crazy feeling. I can’t really explain it. There’s so much that happened and so quick. It was a full on year,” Wighton said at the Rabbitohs’ headquarters in Maroubra.

Wighton dropped two bombshells in the space of eight days last April.

The first was his retirement from representative football after 10 games for New South Wales. The second was knocking back a four-year, $4.4 million extension with the Raiders to sign a four-year deal with the Rabbitohs.

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When asked if he’d ever reconsider the retirement decision Wighton left the door slightly ajar, saying “we’ll have to see.”

But as for his new adventure in the big city and donning the famous cardinal and myrtle, Wighton is all in.

He walked away from familiarity in Canberra to chase a change he believes he needed. Even if it means living in Sydney — something he thought he’d never do.

Some criticised his decision, others questioned it. And that’s exactly what’s fuelling Wighton this year.

“I love proving people wrong — that gets me out of bed. I live every day with that feeling.”

THE DECISION

Wighton’s decision to not re-sign with the Raiders stung coach Ricky Stuart. The club released a statement to confirm their star five-eighth’s departure last year which included poignant quotes from him.

“I know it would have been hard for you, our Raiders fans, because I know what the feeling was like for me, to see an image of Jack in a Souths jersey (digitally altered) on the back page of a Sydney paper today,” it read.

Wighton knew his “massive” call to exit a club he had spent 14 years with was going to ruffle some feathers but he was simply drawn to the Rabbitohs.

“It was one of those ones that I can’t really explain,” he said.

“I’ve got a lot of love for where I was and the people there so to make a change it was just a personal thing. I really needed a change in my life and for my family at the time so we ended up biting the bullet.

“I went and had a meeting with Souths, I met with ‘JD’ (Rabbitohs coach Jason Demetriou) and (CEO) Blake Solly and I just saw that they cared.

“They’re a family orientated club, they care about they’re players and I thought if I am going to make the plunge this is the club I want to do it at.

“I said I’d never live in Sydney but this is the team that made me do it.

“Me and my wife both said we’re big on our family and we felt the family vibes straight away.

“It helps that I’ve played with a few of the boys in rep teams and I’ve got a good understanding of how they run and operate their lives. I like the way they roll so that helped too.”

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CENTRE STAGE FOR RABBITOHS DEBUT

The biggest question about Wighton’s signing has been about how he fits into the Rabbitohs’ 17.

He won a Dally M medal as a five-eighth but Cody Walker owns the Bunnies’ No.6 jersey.

Wighton confirmed that he will play left centre.

“I’ve been training at left centre. We’re just getting some reps in there, that’s where we’re looking to start so (I’ll) hopefully try and secure a spot there,” he said.

South Sydney fans will have to wait until Round 3 for Wighton’s debut though. Not only has he picked up a calf injury that’s ruled him out of the Pre-season Challenge, but he has a four-game suspension for biting in Raiders’ loss to the Knights in week one of the finals last season.

Wighton confirmed the Indigenous vs Maori All Stars clash will count towards his suspension, meaning he will run out in a Rabbitohs jumper for the first time in an epic Round 3 clash with arch rivals the Roosters at Allianz Stadium.

Ironically, even if he didn’t have a suspension to serve Wighton would’ve still been racing the clock to be fit for Round 1.

“(The calf) is feeling good. I’m still in rehab at the moment so just trying to tick all the boxes so I can get back into the full swing by Round 3 when I’m needed,” he said.

“I was (going to be able to play in trials) but with my calf it’ll be Round 3 — that’s the starting point. Everything happens for a reason.”

Souths signing Jack Wighton at training. Pics: Rabbitohs DigitalSource: Supplied

Centre is nothing new for Wighton. He’s played 23 games there at club level and 11 representative games too.

But the plan for him to spend an entire season there is something different.

He’s looking forward to combining with two of the Rabbitohs’ biggest stars and will pride himself on his work rate.

“I guess just trying to master the craft, just bring energy to the team and the little things I can do,” Wighton said when asked what excites him about the positional shift.

“And I get to play outside Cody and Latrell (Mitchell) so I’m excited about that.

“Starting our sets and finishing our sets (is what I hope to do),” he added.

“Bringing the ball out of our own end and helping our boys get that roll on that our middles and players like Latrell, Cody and ‘Cooky’ (Damien Cook) need. Then also finishing our sets, being the first one down there, trying to change the tide in defence too.

Wighton’s arrival does however have major implications on Isaiah Tass, who found a home at left centre last season.

Tass comes off contract at the end of this season. It’s understood he’s spent some time training in the second row but is keeping the pressure on Wighton too.

“Of course (he’s keeping me on my toes). He’s a great player and an even better bloke,” Wighton said.

“I think that’s the great thing about the situation we’re in, it’s so competitive, you have to work for your spot and you’re never safe.

“He’s been unreal this pre-season and you can see how much he’s growing day by day.”

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PACKING UP 14 YEARS IN A PLASTIC BAG

14 years is a long time.

Wighton first joined the Green Machine as a teenager to play in their under 20s side. He was quickly promoted to the full-time squad and made his NRL debut in 2012.

He played 242 first grade games — the sixth most in the club’s history. He experienced highs like playing in the 2019 Grand Final and winning the 2020 Dally M during his time as a Raider. But also had some lows like losing that grand final and a couple of off-field incidents.

His time at the club wrapped up pretty quickly though when the Raiders were knocked out in the first week of finals last season.

When asked if he was disappointed how it all ended, Wighton said: “It depends how you look at it. It’s got to come to an end one way or another. We gave our best and it just wasn’t meant to be. I’m all right (with it).”

There was no farewell party, but he went back and forth between Canberra and Sydney for a while given his wife stayed behind when he first made the move. The pair also got married in the nation’s capital in November with several of Wighton’s former teammates in attendance.

There was however one moment when it really hit home that he was leaving — packing up his locker.

“It was a very weird feeling,” Wighton said.

“I still remember me and ‘Crokes’ (retiree Jarrod Croker) walked in and you’ve just got a black plastic bag sitting there.

“You chuck all your gear in there and that’s all she wrote.

“It was a very weird feeling, a little bit confronting, but it is what it is. I made my bed, I have to lay in it. I enjoyed every minute down there but have new adventures now.

“You’re just there to grab your belongings. It’s weird, all those years and it fits into a black garbage bag.”

Jack Wighton was a favourite at the Raiders. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

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LIFE AS A BUNNY

Wighton has thrown himself into his new life. He lives nearby the Rabbitohs’ training facilities and has quickly become a popular member of the squad.

“It’s been great. I wanted the change and change is what I’m getting,” he said.

“We went from living a little bit in the sticks down in Canberra to being surrounded by four or five beaches. The kids are really enjoying it and my wife too.

“Training has been great, the boys have been very welcoming. It’s good to have some new faces and new voices around.”

Rabbitohs fans have welcomed him with open arms too. He’s been stopped several times in the street for a chat or photo.

“They’re very loyal. You can tell how passionate they are and how much they care about the club,” Wighton said of the fans.

Wighton boasts an impressive resume. Having represented both his state and country he’s one of the game’s elite players. But entering a new club had him rattled.

When asked if he was nervous before his first day at training Wighton said: “Big time.”

“My first day I can definitely say I was nervous but very excited. I’ve been a part of teams my whole life but coming into something that’s a new adventure and new surroundings was a cool and nervous feeling,” he added.

Why? Because it was important to him to make a good first impression.

“Take the whole position (change) part out of it, it’s about building trust from your new teammates,” Wighton said.

“You’re coming to a club they’ve been at for a long time so it’s all about building trust from your new teammates, working hard and showing them you’re there for the right reasons.

“So if you do get lucky enough to take the field with them, they know you’re there for the good reasons and you’ll do the job for them.

“It’s been an awesome experience coming in somewhere new and earning your stripes again.”

Wighton said any preconceived idea that he’d walk into a spot in the Rabbitohs’ starting side was “silly” and added “I never have and never would.”

“Even in Canberra all those years you’re always thinking about the young kids coming through and you’ve always got to earn your stripes,” he said.

“Even if you do have a spot in the team you’ve still got to work hard to maintain it. It’s a long year and anything can happen.

“We’ve got some healthy competition here and that’s keeping everyone on their toes and accountable.”

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EXPECTATIONS

Wighton was one of, if not the biggest transfer ahead of the 2024 season. There’ll be a lot of interested eyes on him when he plays his first game.

He blocks out what he said is “just outside noise” but acknowledged there is pressure that comes with playing such a proud and historical club.

“I’m trying not to think too much into it, I’m just enjoying the process,” he said.

“It’s a first (changing clubs) so I’m just soaking everything up and taking one day at a time with training. I’ll do the same approach once we get to games.

“I’m going to have my highs and lows as you do every year so just enjoy every bit of it.

“It’s a different beast up here though, that’s one thing I’ve noticed. They’re a big, powerful club and with that comes different kind of pressures.

“There’s a lot more focus on the club because of its stature but that’s all part of the game.”

Wighton hasn’t set the bar too high for his first season with South Sydney. A premiership is of course every player’s goal but he’s willing to play the long game.

“I just want to put my best foot forward for the boys, build their trust and hopefully in some ways my experience can pay off in areas,” he said.

“I just want to have a red-hot start and get into it.”

Source website: www.foxsports.com.au

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