By STEVE MASCORD
IT works like this: never open with your best question.
To some people, the journalistic practice of softening up an interview subject with some ‘Dorothy Dixers’ is just plain sneaky. Lull the person into a false sense of security, wait until their guard is down, then hit them with a curly one.
But to most journalists, the procedure is just plain good manners. Would you bowl straight into a conversation, at work or socially, with the most adversarial question you can think of?
With Penrith’s 24-year-old Australian and Lebanese international Josh Mansour, it’s not hard to make polite conversation. Sitting out the back of the main grandstand at Pepper Stadium, he’s a polite guy, asking almost as many questions as he answers.
But eventually, A-List has to man up and ask about the big issue others don’t dare discuss … THAT beard. We’ve been staring at it for 15 minutes, after all.
“Ha – It started with a bet between me and Wes Naiqama last year,” says Josh. “Wes, he stuck solid. I don’t think anyone thought I was going to stick solid as well.
“Last year I just let it go and it was bad, it was terrible. I looked like one of the cast from Lost. This year, I’ve put some time into it.
“I went just to the hair dressers. I comb it every day. A bit of Moroccan oil to get it set when you go out. “
Sadly for the man coach Ivan Cleary once described as being “built like a Chippendale”, he’s got plenty of time to focus on grooming right now. The Kingsgrove Colts junior a knee injury that ruled him out of Test selection and is not expected to allow him to return before Origin I.
Nonetheless, four Test appearances last year is not to be sneezed at. Things have happened so fast for mansour, it might be a blessing to just take stock.
“I came to training over the summer with the same attitude I had that got me there,” says the chirpy son of a Lebanese father and Portugese mother.
“I didn’t change anything. That experience last year was probably the best experience of my whole NRL career. I’d love to do it again with all those blokes.”
His form piqued the interest of the Canberra Raiders.
“Canberra were sniffing around, yes,” he nods, glancing down at the brace on his injured knee.
“For lifestyle reasons and family reasons … I think that was the main thing that kept me here. I also believe in this club and where it’s going. I’ve been at this club for three years no and I’ve just seen it rise every year. We’re setting the standards more with every passing year.
“We’ve got an outstanding coaching staff. We’ve got Gus (Phil Gould) who’s been outstanding behind the scenes for us as well and the recruitment has been outstanding. We’ve been hit by a lot of injuries, we like facing adversity and we’ve been getting the results as well without our main players.”
All of which is great – but as it turns out, we could easily have lost J Mansour to the round-ball game.
“As a kid, I started with soccer,” he recalls. “I aspired to play in the top league in soccer … anywhere, preferably overseas because I grew up watching overseas soccer. But I used to live in an apartment block and all my close mates used to play rugby league, same as all my school friends. One day out of the blue, I went to my parents and said ‘look, I want to play rugby league’. They were very upset with me, I can tell you that. They were devastated.
“I think they really believed I was going to go places in soccer, which is fair enough. But I lost the passion for the game.
“I was a striker. I was going really well. I stopped playing around 10 and then I was playing both codes because I couldn’t make up my mind around 13, 14, 15. After the age of 15, I called it quits on soccer and I was going to put my whole attention on rugby league.”
Mansour insists he wasn’t a natural – but he worked harder than everyone else.
“I always knew it was going to be tough,” he says. “I was lucky to have good coaches in the juniors. I always believed in myself. I felt that if I was keeping up then, I’d always be able to keep up in the top grade.
“I didn’t make any junior rep footy but I think I had the passion and the drive that helped me. I was enthusiastic to get better. Even going to the gym on my days off, just to get better. Whatever it took. I look back and I thank God for pushing me and doing all those things that got me here. When I first experienced rep footy in under 20s, I was surprised I was keeping up. My first year of NRL was really tough but as the years went on I started getting used to it.”
There’ve been some interesting detours along the way: Papua New Guinea with the Prime Minister’s XIII, Europe with the Lebanese team on an unsuccessful World Cup qualification bid in 2009. He played Junior Kangaroos too.
“We played in Tripoli. It was a bit rough. I think the stadium was more of an army base than football stadium.
“I also played in Scotland … I think it was the worst conditions I’ve ever played in. The field was drenched, flooded, freezing weather. It was so windy, I’ll never forget.
“I met my family (in Lebanon) that I haven’t seen in my whole entire life, my uncles and aunties. That was really touching. I saw what my dad went through in his village. It was eye-opening, what he grew up in, how he grew up. It really meant a lot to me. I’m glad I had an opportunity to go.”
This is a common experience for young rugby league players who represent the country of their heritage – something that deeply affects many of them and an aspect of our sport’s international set-up that is often overlooked.
But Josh’s first loyalty is to Australia, where he was born.
And it’s here that he has been pioneering research into how to score tries from impossible situations – a very popular field amongst today’s wingers.
“I think you learn more from the actual games than you do from training,” he reasons.
“It’s putting your body in the right place at the right time. It’s little things. If it’s a kick chase of a ball, catching a high ball in defence, those things matter heaps to the team. Wingers don’t get enough (credit), I think. I might be biased but we’ve got to make important reads and if we make the wrong one, we look silly. It’s all a matter of seconds. You come in too early, they put a kick behind you. If you come in too late, they throw the pass past you. Scoring tries, it comes with instinct, knowing how to put your body in the right position.”
And pretty soon, ‘Sauce” will be pouring over the tryline again. Penrith have had a rough trot but with a full-strength side, there’s little doubt they can make an impact in September if they get there.
The bet with Naiqama is long finished, but the beard will be in play this year as long as Penrith is. Mansour says he doesn’t look in the mirror too much before games, sprucing it up for the TV – despite what you may imagine
.”I know the first tackle, it’s just going to get messy again so there’s just no point,” he laughs.
“I think it’s my trademark since last year. When I shaved it, no-one knew who I was. It was weird. When I grew it again.
“I love it now.”
Then there’s this line, offered with a straight face: “it’s just grown on me now”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK