JAMAL Idris is towering over David Mead as he recalls a childhood of “fishing, growing the garden, growing bananas, yams and taros” in Papua New Guinea
We are in the wide passageway behind the dressing rooms at Skilled Park on Australia’s Gold Coast, and the Kumuls flanker is explaining how he came to move to Australia, play in the World Cup, change his name, withdraw from the Kumuls programme and then rejoin it.
Idris is trying to put his Titans team-mate off – amusing if you are a player but a little annoying after a while f you’re a reporter. But Mead – who laughs nervously at first – has too much pride in his journey to clam up.
“I was born in PNG and spent my first 12 years in the village, Tubusereia,”says the man who scored 16 NRL tries in 2011.
“If you Google it .. it’s about 30 minutes from Port Moresby.
“I went to school there until grade five and then moved to Lismore (in northern New South Wales) with my mum’s elder sister, my auntie.
“She helped me through school until I was 18 and I got to move up to the Titans and had my opportunity.
“It was a big change for me, coming from PNG – from the village, especially. I enjoyed it, growing up in PNG. You don’t get all the luxuries that you get here but I’m glad I did it.
“You get a different perspective on things and now I appreciate all the things I get now in Australia.”
Last year his foster father Stephen died and he also returned to PNG for the death of a cousin – a tough period for a 23-year-old.
But he has started 2013 well for a resurgent Gold Coast, deciding the round three game against Manly by putting a foot in touch and rendering Daly Cherry-Evans line-dropout dead – giving team-mate Aiden Sezer a penalty goal from in front.
“Anyone would have done it,” he said modestly.
If you’re struggling to remember Mead in the 2008 World Cup, there’s a reason. He was listed in matches against England, New Zealand and Australia as “David Moore”.
Here’s the story with the name change – and it’s a heart-warming one.
“My mum looked after me when I was young (in PNG),” he explains. “She was married and the marriage didn’t work out.
“My biological dad moved back to Australia, he was Australian. My mum looked after me with her and her brothers and sisters and my grandparents.”
(Here’s where Idris shows up, standing behind me and grinning at his team-mate).
“I lived with them in the village and my grandparents were doing (sees Idris, laughs nerviously) subsistence farming – I got to experience a lot of fishing, growing the garden, growing bananas, yams and taros.
“I had to wait until I was 18 to be able to change (my name) myself and my mum’s dad’s name, that’s part of my middle name.
“Mead is the name of the family who looked after me here in Lismore. I thought they gave me a big opportunity coming here so I thought I’d show a bit of respect that way.”
Stephen Mead, 63, died last year after a two year battle with cancer. Not long before, he attended a cousin’s funeral in PNG. At the time, Mead decided he was fed up with the Kumuls set up and had announced instead he was throwing his lot in with Queensland.
It’s a decision that surprised many close to him, who knew how dearly he loved the colourful PNG jersey.
“It was how disorganised it was,” he explains to Rugby League World. “I guess it wasn’t as professional as I’m used to at the Titans. That put me off a bit.”
The rule of Don Fox as chairman and Adrian Lam as coach has changed Mead’s mind, though. Mal Meninga’s recruitment hasn’t hurt either.
“They’re getting the old crew together for the World Cup, the successful crew from 2009,” he explained.
“I think they’re putting a good system in place and obviously Mal Meninga’a signed up to help out PNG as well so I think it’s all looking positive. I’m very happy to be part of it – if I get picked.
“I’ve spoken to a few players – Neville Costigan and Pauly Aiton – and they reckon some good things are being put back in place. Everything from PNG looks positive, we’ve just got to get those systems put in place and hope to develop as a country.”
For Aiton, the last World Cup was a life-changing experience. Like many players in rugby league, getting in touch with his ethnicity after a period overseas changed his outlook profoundly.
It’s something that will happen for dozens this October and November – regardless of results. The Kumuls famously led England 16-12 at halftime in Townsville before losing 32-22, and were beaten 48-6 by New Zealand on the Gold Coast and 46-6 by Australia back in Townsville.
“All three games, I still remember them like it was yesterday,” he says with a glint in his eye.
Asked to narrow it down, he adds: “Maybe the England game. It was my first live TV game against men. I’d never played against men before.
“That game gave me a lot of confidence. I believed I could play NRL from that game.”
It’s safe to say the match had the opposite effect on the men in red and white. But five years later, there’ll be youngsters from PNG villages who will always remember the days and nights they got to play with David Mead.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WORLD