“We are never coached to do that stuff. It’s just awkward on the field, to be honest. Just trying to get someone on his back is hard. You always end up on the wrong side of it. We don’t work on those things, we don’t teach those things, in our training.”
If you’ve ever seen Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, you’ll know that look he gives people if he is trying to figure out if they’re lying. It’s an intense stare, waiting for the other person to flinch.
That must be the way I’m looking at Jeff Lima now, at the Park Cafe On Chalmers in Redern. You can guess what the preceding question was about: Wresting. Grapple tackles. Chicken wings.
I think I see a tell-tale blink. Hang on, didn’t Melbourne wrestling coach John Donahue put forward Brett O’Farrell in lala land at training with a sleeper hold in 2004? “I wasn’t there,” says Lima.
We here to chart the rise of Lima from schoolboy rugby union player in Auckland to NRL first grader, to French footballer, Storm grand final win, pantomime Super League villain and finally South Sydney funnyman.
Every club has a wrestling coach. Souths’ is a jujitsu champion. Jeff Lima claims he doesn’t exist. The denial is so ridiculous, it’s funny.
Lima, now 30, has for most of his rugby league career said very little and done much. We always had a vague idea that he had a sense of humour, but it was ‘for the boys’ only.
Now, the former Wests Tigers, St Gaudens, Melbourne and Wigan hard man – with the encouragement of his new club – is “going public” with a video series called Hey Cuzzie! on the Souths website.
But Jeff has rarely been interviewed in any depth. And when you consider he got suspended from the World Club Challenge in 2011 for a chicken wing in his very first Super League game for Wigan, you don’t have to dig too far to find a question on the subject.
Let’s leave that one for a while. If A-List truly is practise for a biography, then the first chapter or two would see Lima playing rugby union at school – before he joined his mother on a trip to visit some relatives in western Sydney.
“I stayed for a year,” he recalls. “I played under 14s at Penrith.” Current Penrith assistant coach Matt Cameron is the man who “discovered” the chunk, powerful forward, offering him a scholarship at Patrician Brothers Blacktown.
But Lima went home when the year was up, switching from union to league. “When I came back with the Junior Kiwis inn 2000, I ended up staying here,” he says.
It was then that Lima attracted the attention of Wests Tigers. “I went and trialled for Balmain, reserve grade,” he recounts.
“I was eligible to play 20s at the time. I was in reserve grade for two years and they offered me a contract there, at Wests Tigers.
“I enjoyed it as a young fella coming through. Obviously, I didn’t make the most of my opportunities. I was just happy to be in the top squad.
“I didn’t work hard enough to stay there.”
From there, came a rather obtuse move to St Gaudens in France, at the end of 2005. Lima had a knee reconstruction that year but the exact circumstances of his departure – after making his first grade debut in ’04 – are a little mysterious.
“David Kelly, our welfare officer (at Wests Tigers), his brother-in-law is the coach at St Gaudens,” he now explains.
“I wanted to travel, you know? Have fun. I was still young at the time. I just felt hungrier and hungrier to play footy again, when I got there
“I didn’t really have it in my mind when I went that I’d be back in the NRL
“I played one or two good games against the big sides and I thought ‘I should go back and have another crack at the NRL’.”
Everyone has stories about playing rugby league in France. “They drink red wine and smoke cigarettes,” Lima laughs.
“We played at Carpentras and most of their team were, like, gypsies. The refs, they’re scared of the whole town. We just had to get in there, do the job and get out. ‘
The Melbourne signing was handled almost completely by Lima’s agent, Sam Ayoub. Dennis Scott had been forced to retire and Ian Donnelly was injured – the Storm needed some back up.
“I was originally going to come back and play for Balmain premier league,” Lima recalls. “The day I got back, my manager said ‘pack your bags, you’re going to Melbourne.
“I wasn’t familiar with Melbourne at the time. All I knew was that they were top of the table.
“I spoke to (Craig) Bellamy. I thought someone was taking the piss out of me.
“In France, it was (train) Tuesday and Thursday, the rest of the week was get out on the drink with the Frenchies. I came back 20 kilos heavier.
“(Melbourne) was a shock for my body but as the weeks went by, I put in the hard work and towards the end of the year, he gave me a shot in first grade.
“At the time I went, it was just what I needed.”
Two grand finals victories followed – and both titles were subsequently stripped. “It’s disappointing but inside of me, I know we won those games.
“We worked hard for each other and most of us in that 2007, 2009 (teams), we were journeymen. We signed for nothing. Where we are now, that’s down to the coach.
“It’s the culture they had down there that turned us around and gave us more opportunity to play NRL.
“It’s lucky my wages weren’t in the paper – I was on matchies!”
Joining Wigan after playing most of 2010 for no competition points finally gave Lima the chance to earn some serious money. But, as we said, it didn’t start well. “I got suspended for two matches in my first game,” he says.
Wigan coach Michael Maguire, by introducing wrestling tactics to Super League, was seen as something of a Dr Frankenstein among the supporters of rival teams.
And Lima was portrayed as his monster. “It didn’t bother me, to be honest,” Lima reckones. “As long as I’m there doing my job as best I can, that’s all they can expect from me.
“With the crowd, they’re pretty rough over there. With your own crowd, if you win games they’re being behind you and if you lose games they’re against you.
“You don’t let it bother you, you get on with games as best you can.”
In 2011, Lima won the Lance Todd trophy as man of the match at Wembley – and admitted at the post match media conference he didn’t know who Lance Todd was. (He’s a Kiwi who played for Wigan and Dewsbury after touring with the 1907 All Golds).
He says now he meant no disrespect. “Those things, you never hear of them when you’re in the NRL,” he explains. “It’s surreal, to be honest. It’s up there with the grand finals. At the time, I didn’t know how I was feeling about it.
“But looking back, it was enormous. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve had.”
In any case, the partnership with Maguure was such that Lima wanted it to continue. “I thought working under Madge had been worthwhile for me, for the last couple of years,” says the Samoan star, who reckons he’s only now discovering the truth in the maxim that props mature later than everyone else.
“I saw (Souths) as a club that was going places. When Michael left England, I sent (Michael) Crocker a text, saying that ‘you boys are lucky that yous are getting Madge’.
“I send (Maguire) a text asking if he needed any front rowers. ”
And here he is. Time, then, to back to Jeff’s first comment. As we did last we with Bryce Gibbs, we go back and ask him if he wants to add anything.
Given that every club has a wrestling coach, his comment is going to look pretty disingenuous in print.
There is just a moment’s hesitation, and then Jeff Lima says: “We just get taught to tackle around the legs. That’s all I want to say.”
This time, he’s not even pretending to tell the truth.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK