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Blake Wilson at Sydney Flight College in Bankstown.

Sitting in a training room of Sydney Flight College in Sydney’s southwest, Bulldogs flyer Blake Wilson takes a moment to remember where he’s come from.

Not just that day, where he rose before the sun on an icy morning, climbed into a cockpit and soared several thousand feet in the air as part of his pilot’s training.

But over the last few years in general. From Noosa to Melbourne and back to the Sunshine Coast on sprawling property with the comfort of his family. To Sydney’s shoebox living, train-and-trial deals and part-time offers. And to now, in an aviation academy, just days after scoring the match-winning try in front of 45,000 fans.

Wilson’s progression through the ranks at Belmore – having joined the club off the back of a self-made Sunshine Coast highlights tape in 2022 – epitomises, in many ways, the blue and white’s resurgence up the ladder this year.

After 16 rounds of 2023, Canterbury sat second last with the worst defensive record in the competition. Through the same this year they’re 10 places higher, with only Penrith conceding fewer points than the Bulldogs this season.

“A lot’s changed for the outside but not a lot’s changed for the inside,” Wilson reflects on his side’s development this year.

The culture was always there between this year and last, the coaching staff was the same. We had the same values and same standards.

Bulldogs winger Blake Wilson

“We learned a lot of new things last year so coming into this season, everyone had a 12-month head start on it all, in a way. We moved into this year, and we started winning some games, but that all came off the back of last year and the standards we set.

“You can’t start winning games in the NRL at the click of your fingers. There’s a lot of training and reps that go into building the standards that you accept as the minimum.

“We’ve been able to have those minimum standards rise so that we know that if we’re hitting those things each week as a team, we’re more than likely going to win.”

A dedication to repetitions isn’t anything out of the ordinary for the well-spoken Noosa Pirate, either. Amidst the busyness of a rugby league season and his training commitments, he sets off in the dark on his days off and heads to Sydney Flight College in Bankstown to work on his ‘other’ career choice: flying.

What initially started as a gift voucher from his parents as a teenager has remained with him across his rugby league journey from part-time to professional.

“This is what I was going to after school,” he says from inside the training rooms of the college, knowing the hours of theory that lie ahead of him after our interview.

“I was going to do into the defence force, but you’ve got to go in there full-time and live with the military, so it was really that or football for me.

Blake Wilson at Sydney Flight College in Bankstown.
Blake Wilson at Sydney Flight College in Bankstown. ©NRL Photos

“I didn’t have the money as a teenager to start doing it then, so when I finished school, it was that decision of going right through to get my license and start flying and being all-in on that and it just didn’t feel like the right time for me.

“I chose to play footy but now I’ve got the time, I’ve started studying part-time. I started it up again six months ago and get here once a week.

“By the end of my career I can roll into it properly and have it ready to go straight away. Hopefully I can do some commercial stuff or even go into private. I can do my flights and study around my days off and what works, and I really enjoy the theory side too.”

Blake Wilson at Sydney Flight College in Bankstown.
Blake Wilson at Sydney Flight College in Bankstown. ©NRL Photos

Well-aware that his role within the team could go any week with the pending return of Josh Addo-Carr from injury or Stephen Crichton from Origin duties – or even just his own form – Wilson’s balance between his on and off field commitments is commendable.

A lot of that is down to his journey, and the gutsy decisions to back himself along the way – regardless of what the sacrifice might be.

A talented wing and fullback option, first with the Noosa Pirates and then Sunshine Coast Falcons in Queensland Cup, Wilson found himself finishing his 2022 campaign after successive COVID-interrupted seasons with a big decision to make.

“It’s a lot different in Queensland Cup to what I’ve found in New South Wales,” he said.

“In my situation, it felt a lot that if Melbourne had injuries, they weren’t going to bring people out of Cup at all. They had their 4-5 players which came back to play for us, and they’re going to use everyone in their top 30 before they’ll start looking anywhere.

“That’s the right thing to do but it made it hard because you feel separated.

“It was the last roll of the dice for me, that year. If I didn’t get a full-time deal, I was going to go down the flying route full-time, which I was okay with, but my manager and I made a highlights tape and sent it around to a few clubs who were interested.”

It didn’t take long for the phone to ring and for Wilson to find himself on a plane, far back from the cockpit, however, and en route to a self-described “shoebox” in Erskineville.

“Gus said to me how the club was going through a rebuilding stage and that there was plenty of opportunity for me if I wanted to take it,” he said.

“They offered me a train-and-trial deal a week later for the season, so I moved down to Sydney with a friend into this little apartment which was a big change. My parents lived on acreage, so it was a big change to move into a shoebox apartment.

“Not going to lie, it was pretty loud underneath the flight path,” he laughed.

“Even that year felt really make-it or break-it for me. If I wasn’t playing well, I wasn’t going to get re-signed. I dropped the first two or three kicks to me in my first game of NSW Cup and I can remember thinking, ‘what am I doing here?’

“But it just started happening after that. I found myself playing well, debuted in Round 11 that year and felt like I was going well and could be offered another contract, which I did and managed to get some security into my future.

“I haven’t been what others have been through but to get to the position I am in now has still had a lot of sacrifice. Being part-time is pretty hard because you’re really training what feels like full-time and having to go to work full-time as well.

“So now it just takes the stress out of it all,” Wilson reflected.

“You’re playing for your career every game, and you want to play the best you can regardless of your contract situation because you want to help the club reach its collective goals, but it’s definitely less of an individual stress.”

Those collective goals continue to be a focus for Wilson and Canterbury under Ciraldo in 2024, with a deliberate intention to improve on whatever has come before.

Not just year-to-year or week-to-week, either, with new skipper Stephen Crichton bringing a new mentality to the way the team approaches their training.

“He sets our intentions before every training session of where we need to improve,” Wilson said. “Whether we did something well or not so well in the last session – whatever our goals are for that week to improve on – he’s really good on driving that.

“He’s great at making sure that everyone knows what their job is so that the moment you step on the field you know exactly what you need to do for the team.

“But he does it in such a calming way.

“In that game, we were just talking about what their defence was doing. We knew we needed to score, but he was just talking about what their defence was doing and how we were going to react to that, and we felt like we were going to win.

“Stick to the processes and play the game how we want to do it, and we’ll win.”

Wilson's Monday footy wonder

Not that there’s any victory laps of Belmore Oval being taken after Round 16, nor any inside the walls of SFC despite Blake’s instructor, David, doing his best to sing the praise of the 24-year-old after his first solo take off that morning.

“It’s pretty clear around training and especially in our meetings that nobody really cares about what you do in the first half of the season,” Wilson said.

“It only matters what you do at the end and where you finish.

“Even in how good things have been this year, we’re only just starting to hit our minimum standards and pushing them higher, so we’re just building a baseline.”

Or, in a simpler way: the sky’s the limit.

Blake Wilson at Sydney Flight College in Bankstown.
Blake Wilson at Sydney Flight College in Bankstown. ©NRL Photos
Acknowledgement of Country

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs respect and honour the Darug and Eora nations, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.