THE Gerringong Lions' strong connection with the St George Illawarra Dragons will continue after one of their top junior products agreed to extend his stay at the club.
That junior is none other than 22-year-old Jackson Ford.
Ford, after starting his rugby league journey at Michael Cronin Oval, quickly showed talent beyond his years and progressed into the Illawarra Steelers junior representative system.
He then transitioned through St George Illawarra's under 20s system before establishing himself as one of the hardest working prospects in the NSW Canterbury Cup competition - which ultimately led to the Group Seven junior making his first grade debut on August 10 last season.
Since then, Ford has made five appearances for the Red V, displaying enough to see the club want to extend his contract until the end of 2022.
"I'm stoked to get the contract extension finalised, especially considering everything that's happening around the world - it's great to know my future is secure," Ford said.
"To be able to extend my stay with the club I played all my junior footy with and gave me my first grade debut, is really special.
"Re-signing with the Dragons was always my main objective and as a big family man, it's great I'll still be able to live close to home and play the sport I love.
"I love the club and everyone involved in it - it's really exciting to be here for at least another couple of years."
Ford's extension comes in the wake of Dragons international back-rower Tyson Frizell deciding to leave the club and link with Newcastle from 2021.
This prompted Dragons coach Paul McGregor to say Ford is the 'heir apparent' to fill Frizell's spot on the team's left-edge - as well as labelling the Kiama High School alumnus as 'one of the best trainers he's ever seen'.
"Obviously it'll be sad to see Frizz [Tyson Frizell] go, as I rate him as the best back-rower in Australia," he said.
"It's important I try and learn as much as I can off him before he leaves and try and help my game develop further.
"His departure will create an opening in the forward pack, one which I'll do my best to try and claim.
"Then to hear those comments from Mary [McGregor], someone who's achieved so much in the game, is quite special and shows all the hard work I'm putting in is being noticed.
"I come here [to training] every day and try to give my best, which is something that was instilled in me from a young age."
Ford, during his enforced break, used the extra time to help build his sister Bree's house, while also reuniting with an old teammate at his former home ground.
"It was good to lend a hand to Bree and Joe [Rogers] during the break but my return to training has gotten me out of helping out on the worksite," he said.
"It helped me take the mind off not playing footy and kept me busy during the break.
"When I wasn't helping out on the job site, it was awesome to train once again with one of my good mates Reuben [Garrick].
"It definitely brought back some old memories from my days playing at Michael Cronin Oval - a ground where we played juniors, under 18s and first grade together.
"The training kept us both fit, as we continued to push each other to work hard - all this proved beneficial coming back to training with the Dragons."
Ford, having returned to training recently, is determined to break into the club's top 17 when the season resumes later this month, after playing the opening two rounds in Canterbury Cup.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't part of the squad for the first two weeks but that's all in the past now," he said.
"I'm concentrating on what I can control, which is working hard at training and looking after my body during recovery.
"With no Canterbury Cup for the rest of the season, competition for spots is going to be tough. So it's important I put my best foot forward and prove I can be an asset to the club's first grade side each week."
Another Dragon who had high praise for Ford was fellow Lions product Korbin Sims.
"I'm stoked to see Jacko [Ford] has extended his deal with the club, as I know he can't picture himself playing anywhere else," Sims said.
"It's exciting for the Dragons too, as he's a hell of a player.
"Although he's still finding his feet in first grade, he's definitely earning the respect of everyone around the club.
"He's a very talented back-rower, who can be productive while playing big minutes - he wouldn't look out of place in the middle of the field either
"He's a great asset for the club and will be a big part of the Dragons' future moving forward."