Cairns-born Jake Clifford is a richly talented young footballer carrying the burden of being North Queensland’s next Johnathan Thurston.
There is no hiding from the high expectations Clifford carries on his young shoulders, shoulders that have already required no fewer than three major operations.
In fact, after two reconstructions on his right shoulder and the most recent to his left, he has spent more time in rehab than he has playing rugby league.
A lot of young kids would have turned to a non-contact sport after such a bad run of injuries but Clifford has worked his way back from each operation and has continued to grow as a person and a player.
Like the man he hopes to replace, who also had problems with his shoulders as a young player, Clifford’s desire and resolve to fulfill his amazing potential has only gotten stronger with each setback.
“The first one (shoulder operation) I dealt with pretty good and then when it happened again I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again’, but my mum and dad, Matt and Alison, stuck by me and helped me out during the tough time,” he told QRL Media.
“I’ve always been very passionate about playing NRL so tossing in the towel never really entered my mind.
“Everyone has setbacks, it is how you overcome them and how you handle the hard work to get back.”
For his second and third shoulder surgeries, Clifford underwent a different type of operation known as the Latarjet procedure designed by French surgeon Dr Michael Latarjet.
The operation is ideally suited to athletes who play contact sport who suffer from increased shoulder laxity (looseness of a limb) who may have had a previous shoulder reconstruction.
It prevents further dislocations and in 98-99 per cent of cases, is successful with an extremely low complication rate.
“My shoulders are fine now and my doctor and surgeon are very happy with the results,” said Clifford, who is part of the Queensland Under 20 squad that will take on NSW at Suncorp Stadium on Wednesday, July 11, before State of Origin Game III.
“I haven’t had any medical dramas with either shoulder since I had the Latarjet operation.”
“I have to keep doing special rehab and keep on top of that to further strengthen my shoulders and minimise the risk of it happening again but I am pretty confident with them.”
Learning from the best
Clifford played all his junior football with Tully Tigers before three years with the Northern Pride between the ages of 15-17 in the Mal Meninga Cup.
He moved to Townsville where had had two seasons with the Cowboys Under 20s.
The Cowboys pounced with a new two-year deal until 2020 after he was named the National Youth Competition’s Player of the Year last year.
Clifford said he was enjoying the chance to learn from some of the greats of the game at the Cowboys, especially retiring halfback Johnathan Thurston as well as finally being a full-time footballer.
“I’m always picking his (JT’s) brain about things I can do better and trying to see what his mindset is when he attacks and how he reads the game.
“He is always good for a chat and to give me advice.”
Clifford picks up any little thing he can from Thurston and tries to implement it into his game.
“Whatever I see him do, I try to see myself doing the same things because he is one of the best in the game, whatever he does.
“I watch him at training and also off the field and, whenever I can, I get tips off him.
“Everyone around the club is great and while it has been a tough year coming back from another shoulder operation it has still been an enjoyable year for me,” he said.
Clifford extended his contract with the Cowboys this year through to 2020.
“Hopefully an opportunity will come at the end this year or sometime next year so I have to be sure I am ready when that day comes.”
Being named NYC player of the Year and also Rugby League Players Association Player of the Year last year was very rewarding for young Clifford given his battles with injuries, which, apart from coming back from his latest shoulder operation, included a torn groin.
“I thought Harry Grant (Melbourne Storm) could have got it, he had a good season and there were a few other players I thought may have got it.
“I just tried to be consistent every week and that is how I have played since moving on to the Queensland Cup this year,” he said.
“The (Northern) Pride have been getting a few good results and I have been playing consistently which is good.”
“I’ve been working a lot this year on my game management and staying composed in the tight games.”
A former Queensland Schoolboy, Clifford was 18th man for last month’s Queensland Residents side that lost to NSW. “Hopefully, this time I can be part of history because no Maroons team has beaten NSW in the 20s since it started seven years ago,” he said.
“It’s something I want to be really pumped up for on Wednesday night.”
HOW TO WATCH: The Queensland v NSW Under 20s match will be live-streamed on QRL.com.au with commentary by Peter Psaltis and Steve Roach.