IT wasn’t supposed to be like this for Craig Gower – even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with “this”.
We are sitting outside the London Broncos training sheds, overlooking the playing fields at the Roehamption Campus of Kingston University in London. It’s hot enough to give you sunburn, peaceful enough to hear the birds.
Gower tells A-List about how much he enjoys living in London, how there’s always something to do. He’s heading to a wedding in Thailand on the way back home in the off-season.
But for a man who once captained Australia, one of the world’s leading cities is a backwater – moreso given the performance this year of the Broncos.
In Gower’s first season back from four years in French rugby union, there have been just six wins – three of them in the past month.
It’s a campagn that started with such promise and soon found itself in the football toilet, sucking with it the positive hype about Gower’s return to our loving embrace. Anonymity is one thing – but Craig Gower is too good a player to wallow in obscurity.
“They recruited well but the expectations from recruiting well and delivering on the field are two different things,” says Gower, his training shirt drenched in sweat.
“It started with not winning (which led to) losing confidence in what we’re doing. Obviously (it’s) not showing enough mental strength to stick together as a team….”
The year had been enough of a challenge on a personal level, without the poor results. “I didn’t think it was going to be easy at all,” he says of his return. “It’s obviously a completely different game to rugby (union). There’s always doubts there.
“The first few games were about finding my feet – I was coming back from a knee reconstruction as well.
“(I was thinking) ‘What things did I used to do? Are they going to be effective?’ I had to change the way I played a little but I felt pretty comfortable over the year and over the past few weeks, the team’s played well and that gives me a better chance of playing well…”
There had been nibbles from NRL clubs. “It was discussed but it didn’t eventuate,” he recalls, maybe a little ruefully. “Obviously my knee at the time wasn’t ready to go. I had to do a good off-season and I can’t train back-to-back days.
“I’ve just had a managed program. A lot of guys do that in the NRL anyway. I suppose that didn’t help me.
“Matty Orford getting canned from Canberra wasn’t too good for me either, being his age. It is what it is.”
Now you might expect Craig (age 34, in case you were wondering) to be a little bitter. You might expect him to decry playing in a poor team as a part of a competition many of his compatriots regard as second rate.
That’s not what he’s like at all. He says Super League is a strong competition, that the teams most of us regard as alsorans can beat the glamour sides on their day – with an astonishing 62-18 win over Cup finalists Warrington a week and a half ago as evidence.
“It’s more open, defences aren’t as good,” he observes. “The top sides have good defences but nothing like back home – not like the games I’ve been watching, anyway.”
I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t report that there was a strange expression on the former NSW half’s face as he said this: “Here it’s the strength factor. I don’t know what they’re … what sort of gym routines they’ve been doing but they’re very, very strong.
“Everyone. I suppose they just do a lot of gym work here…”
Off the field, though, is where English rugby league lags behind the southern hemisphere, he argues.
“I don’t know the ins and outs but from what I know, the deal they’ve got with Stobart is a contra deal, which is absolutely ridiculous,” he says (this deal has been voided, effective at the end of this season)
“They don’t televise every game, they have in-goal touch judges like it’s back in 19 effing 80. That’s where they’re so far behind. I can’t judge who’s running the joint … but if they want the game to go ahead, they need it to be televised, every game, and have proper (video) officiating like they have for two games because I think it’s a bit unfair.
“Apparently it’s second to soccer here, in being watched, so I don’t know what the deal is.”
Living the high life in Biarritz during his time in the 15 man game, Gower was a picture of the expression “living well is the best revenge”. The bad publicity which dogged him in Australia after alcoholic misadventures had been left behind.
A French rugby union official read his Wikipedia entry and almost decided not to sign him. You can too: it features being dropped from the Australian team for indecent exposure and going on a rock star-type rampage at a wedding.
And I guess if you’re an NRL fan, that’s what you want to know about more than the state of the game in England – how Gower’s career could have taken a different path if he had stayed a Penrith and kept his nose clean.
“Some of the things that get written are unbelievable, mate,” he responds when I ask if Penrith still have any hold over him because he left with two years remaining on his contract in 2007.
“I had a get-out clause that was done when I did the deal. It was a handshake deal with Mick Leary that if I felt like I wanted to leave the club, if I had an opportunity to go somewhere else overseas, I could.
“I exercised that agreement and that was it. It wasn’t like I was leaving them in the lurch.
“It is what it is, mate. I made my bed because I went a bit crazy a few times and – shit happens.
“Things that got reported were sometimes off the mark.” Gower draws a very distinct line. If he did it, and you talked or wrote about it, that’s fine.
But … “that’s the thing. It was more with things being written that were just not right.
“Ray (Hadley) went off his head because I didn’t tell him … I hadn’t actually signed the contract but because I had said to him I wasn’t going (to Bayonne) … .
“I wasn’t going at that time. I hadn’t signed the contract. He went off his head calling me a liar because I said to him I wasn’t going to go and the next day I signed the contract and i was going.”
To provide some balance, as a media person I would rather just be told “no comment” than have something denied outright that turns out to be true. But Gower argues people keep secrets regarding their employment all the time – and that as a professional athlete, he should be allowed to as well.
“If 2UE rang up and said come to our joint, it would be a different story for Ray….”
“It’s just funny how it works sometimes. That’s the thing with the game back home. It’s so heavily scrutinised because it’s the number one game, it is what it is. It’s the same as the soccer here.”
Rugby league will soon catch up with soccer in another area – sacking coaches.
It’s no badge of honour for players when their coach gets sacked. Promising young British clipboard man Rob Powell was given his marching orders a month ago, and has now been replaced on a permanent basis by Tony Rea, who was originally just a caretaker.
So why do teams like London and Parramatta manage to pick themselves up off the canvas when they coach gets the bum’s rush?
“Personally, I think it’s different for a coach to come in like that,” Gower answers. “They’re not coming in to coach you. They’re coming in to get your confidence up and get the team together. You haven’t really seen the coach until he’s had a good year term of ups and downs.
“That’s the way I look at it. Obviously Tony’s done a good job because he’s come in and got the boys together and we’ve won a few games….”
The implication being: we’ll see how he’s going a year from now.
Gower says he is still up to NRL standard. If a halfback was to get injured sometime in the next 12 months, he could do a job for someone.
“I think so. I think my form here has been good. It’s hard to say but it’s all about having that opportunity and I suppose people look at my age and they make their judgements off that. That’s fair enough.”
He can’t say for sure that his swansong will be for Italy in next year’s World Cup. “It’s just a matter of how well my body’s going.
But he and wife Amanda have stashed away enough money to save him from having to get a job immediately.
When the boots eventually do go in the kitbag for the last time, Gower will be remembered as someone who admitted his mistakes but didn’t concede the rights of others to punish him any way they saw fit, repeatedly.
Gower took the road less travelled, to France, to Italy, to rugby union, and back again. Right now, he says, the only thing on his mind is training, playing, making the most of the time he has left in a career that reads like a rock star biography.
“Away from that,” he says. “I play some golf.
“ I’ve got to get that handicap down.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK