By STEVE MASCORD
IT’s 10.15 PM on March 19, outside the St George Illawarra dressingrooms at WIN Stadium. Rugby League Week is interviewing Jamie Soward.
“Hey Soward!” a man in a Bulldogs jersey shouts from behind the wired gate in the southern grandstand. “At least you didn’t take a dive tonight.”
The 25-year-old Dragons five-eighth bristles. “I didn’t last time either, brother.” Security is called and the heckler is led away.
Cut to last week, just up the stairs from where the confrontation took place. Soward is talking to RLW again, while a platoon of team-mates has massages in the sun a few feet away.
“It’s disappointing when people have to have a shot at you,’’ he says. “You were standing there, the game was finished. I was by myself and it’s disappointing someone had to make themeselves feel better by having a go at me because I hadn’t said anything to him.”
The pest’s reference, of course, was the end of the 2009 regular season, when a contentious penalty against the Bulldogs after Soward was felled in backplay denied the Belmore men a match and probably the minor premiership.
“There was a lot of stuff … away from that game that happened to myself, my family that we didn’t deserve,’’ Soward, who describes himself as “pretty intense”, continues.
“At the end of the day, I don’t make the decisions. I just play the game
“… you can say whatever you want when the game’s on but when the game’s finished I should just be able to walk home and enjoy my life like a normal person.”
Asked exactly what treatment his family was subjected to, Sowards answers: “I don’t want to go much into it but yeah, they copped it. You were there, you saw it.
“I still get the milkman calls and all that. That’s fine. That’s just people being passionate and I support that. I am a passionate person. I know the Dragons fans are passionate.”
And herein lies the reason Jamie Soward is probably the most interesting man in the National Rugby League. While many contemporaries shut themselves off from the white noise of football punditry between training and games, and even look down their noses at the beanie brigaders, the “niffnuffs”, Soward is an entirely different beast.
Jamie Soward lives rugby league. Jamie Soward IS a niffnuff – and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the one player who devours the most criticism of rugby league players is the one of the rugby league players who attracts the most criticism.
On the other hand, he’s also – officially – the most loved player in the NRL ,as his 2009 Peoples Choice Award will attest.
This afternoon in Wollongong, Soward makes the following two statements within 60 seconds of each other. I kid you not.
1. “Chokers is a harsh tag … you see that stuff and it hurts you and it drives you.”
2. “If you’re worried about outside stuff, what’s going on, what people are saying, you’re not worrying about your job. Your job is to win football games.”
The fact is: Jamie Soward is more likely to be motivated by criticism because he’s more likely to be aware of it. My voice recorder shows 1:59 when the world “choked” is first raised – and it’s by Jamie, not by me.
“Everyone wants us to fail,” he says defiantly. “Everyone wants to be able to say ‘they choked again’ or whatever. ‘They lost’. For us, we really couldn’t care less what everyone else is thinking.
“(Last year) it hurt to a certain extent because people came out and said we were chokers but half of the squad hadn’t played finals footy before. It’s a learning curve. Chokers is a harsh tag because there’s 15 other teams that didn’t win the comp. People say ‘you’ve got pressure on you to win the comp this year because you didn’t last year’. No we don’t. We don’t have any pressure.
“That’s the point I try to make. For us, it was disappointing that so many people came out and had an opinion whereas … 14 teams didn’t make the grand final. It wasn’t only us. It wasn’t like everyone else got the prize and we didn’t. “
That’s a subject most of his team-mates wouldn’t dream of delving into. But like we said, Jamie Soward sees football pretty much the same way you do – and likes being criticised, heckled and ridiculed about as much as you do, too.
He’s got that slogan on his strapping, ‘Don’t Carry Your Divots’, hasn’t he?
“I’d like to think I don’t need it now. I’d like to think I’m changing to where I just do it. I don’t have to write it down there,’’ he says, before adding: “but I’m probably a little way off that yet.
“I used to sort of write ‘believe in yourself’ which is just a reminder, that you’re out here and if you weren’t good enough, then the coach wouldn’t pick you.”
If Soward reads all the headlines, he also makes them. There was the time senior players requested Ben Rodgers play in a semi-final in his place (“It was just a decision that Brownie and a few of the senior players made. It’s gone now”), a biting allegation involving Matt Ballin (“There’s a difference between going out to bite someone and if someone’s got their hand in your mouth”) and of course being palmed off by Greg Inglis in round one last year.
But he says “footy hasn’t been the worst time I’ve had. I’ve had other things in my life that have gone heaps worse for me.” (Soward lost his father Peter to a heart attack in 2005).
“I guess I’ve, after last year, quietened a few people … I still get my knockers which is still pretty funny but I’d like to think I’ve been a lot more consistent the last three years.
“Wally Lewis, in his story, he talks about when he comes to Sydney and people boo him, he used to love that. He used to get high off that feeling, of knowing that whole crowd was against him. They didn’t want him to win. Then he goes out and … what he did on the footy field was amazing. I guess I took a little bit of a leaf out of his book, only in the last couple of years. Earlier on, it probably got to me a bit.”
It’s a slightly bleak world view, Jamie’s. I ask if he ever stops to think about all the kids wearing head gear because of him, all the shuffling and toe-stubbing that goes on before goalkicks because of him, the fact there is a Jamie Soward action figure.
Surely that makes yobbos yelling insults pale into insignificance.
He nods. “I probably thought about it a little bit last year when I won the People’s Choice Award, which was pretty humbling. Up until that stage, I thought a lot more people hated me than liked me.
“I guess I just go out there and try and play hard each week. I’m not saying I’m perfect off the field either. I’ve gone out and had a good time and stuff. But it’s about trying to be a good role model and do the best you can.
“I guess the easiest way to sum it up is you either love or hate Jamie Soward. There’s no in between. There’s no fans that say ‘he’s alright but ….’ this and that.
“As much as I’d rather more people love than hate me, I still respect the people who hate because that’s their opinion.”
Just don’t share that opinion with Jamie after 9.30pm, OK?
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK