NO-ONE, perhaps, personifies the dichotomy surrounding the debate over State of Origin violence better than Brett White.
In Origin III, 2009 at Suncorp Stadium, NSW prop White knocked out rival Steve Price cold. It led to the famous bomb-for-a-fight at Darren Lockyer’s instigation and hastened us down the road which we may now have finally reached the end of.
The implication from last Wednesday is that fighting is outlawed and, after almost 100 games, Origin is finally played under the same rules as club football.
Why is it a dichotomy? Because 31-year-old White feels conflicted about that night five years ago everything that has happened since, culminating in the punching crackdown of the past month.
“It’s funny, there’s two sides to it,” he tells A-List, sequestered at a corner table at Cafe Momo in Bruce. “ I can see it from both sides, you know?
“ love the gladiatorial part of Origin. I remember as a kid, growing up and watching the big hits and all that sort of stuff and loving it. I loved that physical and aggressive side of the game. But I’ve got kids as well and understand the image that the NRL are trying to portray about the game. Especially when you see things like the young guy who got put in a coma there a couple of weeks ago.
“I’ve got a nine-year-old daughter and I remember when my stuff happened a few years ago, her friends saying they’d watched her dad on YouTube. That’s…. that’s … all funny if a bloke in a pub says it to you but when you have your kid’s friends saying that they’ve see you in a fight on the football field, it’s not always … it’s not something to be proud of
“I guess I sit on the fence. I love the aggressive side of it but understand the young kids and it’s not a great image for our kids to see.”
White left Melbourne at the end of the following year and has been out injured for a large chunk of the last 12 months. But Origin – and all the emotions, scrutiny and pressure it entails – is still fresh in his memory.
“When you go into an Origin, you’re in a totally different mindframe to people are normally going to work,” he says. “You’re in an environment where, all week, all you think about is how much you want to play aggressive and play that sort of a aggressive style of football against the other team.
“ It’s all you’re doing all week, preparing for that, and sometimes tempers flare … and those things happen. It’s only a small part of the game, it’s only a couple of seconds but it seems to be talked about so heavily.
“Matty Johns brought out the ‘Bring Back The Biff’ thing. Everyone loves that. But unfortunately when it happens you’re also a target for doing the wrong thing. It’s hard to win either way.”
White has always been a relatively straight-talking fellow. Born in Cooma the same year as his current club, he played lower grades at St George Illawarra before joining Melbourne in 2005.
And he was there for it all – the wrestling, the salary cap dramas, the grand finals. It was the cap scandal that more or less forced him out. It’s just as well he doesn’t mince words because there’s plenty of ground to cover.
A couple of weeks back, he extended his tenure in the capital by a year. Had he stayed in Melbourne, he says, he would have already been a year into retirement. “The Raiders … they’ve got a brilliant strength and conditioning program. I’ve noticed a big change in my body since I’ve come up here,” he says.
Of his time at Canberra, he opines: “I knew it was going to be tough. Obviously … it’s hard to put it the right way but I really enjoyed where I was at Melbourne and I was really disappointed when I had to leave there. I knew it was going to be a challenge…”
A challenge? It’s been noted that props who leave the heaving bosom of the AAMI Park-Olympic Park precinct don’t fare as well as they did when they were there. White last played representative football in 2010…
He’s not offended by the question. “At the end of the day, we play a pretty simple game,” he says “When you break it down … in the middle’s a pretty simple job. You can send blokes out there knowing exactly what they have to do and not try to over-complicate it. It makes it easy to focus on those things that you have to do well.
“Even your actions on the field, they talk a lot down there (in Melbourne) about muscle memory. That’s just, no matter what state of mind you are in or how tired you are or how fresh you feel, you do the same job and do it the best you can. It’s just programmed.
Why don’t these practices travel well? “It’s hard to put your finger on it and I don’t want to come across saying other clubs aren’t as good or whatever. They’re good in different areas. As I said, it’s a simple job. Everyone should be able to go out and do it….”
Then there’s Adam Blair….
“I sent him a message there a few weeks ago. I feel really sorry for him because he’s taken a lot of the blame and I don’t think a lot of it is warranted. He’s still the same player who was doing the job down there when we were having success in Melbourne. I don’t think it’s got a lot to do with what he does. I think it’s the structure that he’s in now. He’s found it hard to adapt to that.
“See, there’s probably a lot more structure to the game in Melbourne. I guess, with the Tigers, and one of the great things about playing with Benji Marshall is he creates things as he sees things. I guess, a lot of that structure is not relied upon as much. He’ll just play what he sees and that’s one of the great things about his game and it makes him a great player but on the other hand, it would be hard to play alongside him because you’ve got to kind of read the play as well as what he’s doing. You play alongside a guy like Cooper Cronk, you know two days before you play exactly what he’s going to do!”
The bonds of the players who were at Melbourne for the half-decade White called the city home clearly remain strong. There are war stories … like a biting allegation against FuiFui MoiMoi and later the claim he chicken-winged Nathan Cayless in the 2007 preliminary final.
Of wrestling, he recalls: “It was just identified that the game was going down that track and I guess we just wanted to be better than everyone else.
“Everyone went on about these dirty tactics and that but it’s just unfortunate that a few things happened. It certainly wasn’t a targeted area that we’re going to go out and do this. It’s just unfortunate when you develop and are ahead of the game, some other clubs try and use tactics to pull you back into the pack.
“A lot of the teams have probably caught up with Melbourne but I think, without doubt, they’re … still leading the way.”
Brett watched last year’s grand final with other Storm old boys like Stephen Kearney, Glen Turner and Matt Geyer. He felt no angst or regret about not being on the field. He still doesn’t know who to blame about the two stripped premierships and his own departure.
“There were still the same number of guys going out there on the field and we all put in the hard work and week-in, week-out, played the footy to the best of our ability and it’s just unfortunate that things were going on behind the scenes and up the ranks higher than us that had that effect,” he says, when the issue is raised.
“If they hadn’t have done the things that took the achievements away on paper … I think Ryan Hoffman says ‘we’ve got the DVDs, we’ve got the tattoos and I think we’ve still got the rings’. The most important thing is, we’ve got the memories.
“I don’t really know a lot of how it was all done. Obviously, the thing was all pointed at the one person and I’m not sure if it was just him or if it was more involved. I guess, at the end of the day, it’s just heartbreaking that it happened. It doesn’t just affect the players or the club. It’s the whole of rugby league in Victoria. I think it really put a knock to that and that’s at the stage where rugby league in Victoria was really going somewhere and really starting to develop. It’s just a shame for rugby league as a whole.”
I ask whether people still say the players were aware of the rorts. He looks back and says: “Not to my face”.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK