The A-List: KEVIN PROCTOR (Melbourne, New Zealand Maori, New Zealand)

2013 Melbourne Storm HeadshotsBy STEVE MASCORD

 ON May 27, 2014, the Canberra times breathlessly reported that the Raiders “sign James Tedesco and miss out on Kevin Proctor”.

Subsequently, of course, the Wests Tigers and Italy fullback reneged on that contract with the Green Machine – thereby guaranteeing himself a lifetime’s worth of jeers every time the road gets smoother as he crosses into the ACT.

Many, many kilometres from Bruce – Liverpool, England to be exact – we learn exactly what a bad month May, 2014, was for Ricky Stuart.

How close did 26-year-old Kevin Proctor come to signing with Canberra?

“It was pretty close. I think we’d shaken hands and everything,” says the corkscrew-curled back-rower, across the table in the hotel coffee shop

“Something just didn’t feel right, when I woke up the next day. I told them the truth. You don’t really want someone going to your club if they aren’t 100 per cent committed.

“I just told them the truth and he was sweet with that.”

“He”, of course, being coach Stuart. Not someone I’d like to face in such circumstances. Wasn’t young Kev just a little intimidated?

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“I was but you don’t really want to go there half-hearted. You want to go there and put your full commitment behind it. I just told them how I felt.

“Especially because I’ve got a daughter to worry about now and I’ve got a partner as well. That all came into account as well”

During our chat, Proctor admits he “hated” Melbourne at first. But after sleeping on his verbal agreement, he found his view had changed so much that he just couldn’t leave.

“It’s just the lifestyle there. It’s so cruisy for a city, anyway. You’re not fully under the spotlight like Sydney is and Queensland and Canberra I suppose, north Queensland.

“It’s all AFL down there so you fly under the radar and do your own thing and my partner and daughter love living there too. That all came into account as well and Storm, they’re the ones who have given me my opportunity to start so I guess it’s a little bit of payback there.”

Perhaps because of the reduced scrutiny on Melbourne players, Kevin Proctor is probably one of those players you know little about outside the weekly green rectangle. He played three codes of football in four cities before he was 21, only picking up league because there was no local rugby union sides when he resided on the Gold Coast.

That’s where his second bombshell comes from. When his current Storm contract expires in three years, he’d like to go back to the 15-man game.

He says: “I loved my rugby union growing up. I played that pretty much my whole life, until I was 16, 17 and then made the transition. It was really good and I’d probably like that to be my second option.

“I wouldn’t mind giving it a crack, eh? Just because I grew up with it so much and I know the game so well.

“I don’t know, I suppose you could leave that to my manager to try and help me find a club somewhere maybe. I wouldn’t mind having a go at something like that.”

Born in Te Kuiti, Proctor is an unaffected sort of chap. He travelled from New Zealand to Perth to the Gold Coast, playing whatever was going before being unearthed by the Storm.

Suddenly, everything changed for him.

“Moving down to Melbourne, the culture they have down there and the professional side of things made me grow up a lot quicker,” he reasons.

“Because I was moving away from my family and didn’t really know anyone down in Melbourne, you kind of have to…

“.I really hated it the first week I went there but … I was only 18 and the first one (in my family) to move away from home and I suppose I just didn’t really like the lifestyle down there at the time.

“Now I love it. I think I’ve been there eight years now. It was the culture down in Melbourne that really got me to where I am now.. They teach you all the good traits and I suppose I take that onto the field with me. I Craig (Bellamy) has been a big help for me too. He’s such a good coach. He gives you things to work on and … oh, mate I can’t really explain it too much.

“He turns you into one of those players and if he doesn’t like you, you’re pretty much … if you can’t keep up with the Melbourne training and the workload and all that stuff I suppose you’re in and you’re out. He’s taught me most things I know with my rugby league today and … I wouldn’t have got too far without him and the Melbourne Storm.”

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Another beneficiary of that tutelage is Proctor’s New Zealand team-mate, Tohu Harris.

The recent Kiwis tour of Britain, of course, should have been Harris’ second…

 “It was kind of … it was weird how they did that, when they picked him and then Sonny Bill made himself available and they didn’t pick him,” says Proctor, happy to discuss one of the touchiest recent subjects surrounding the black jumper.

“It would have been good to have him … he would have been one of the young guys like Sio Sia (Taukeiaho) now and Curtis Rona and all those boys getting the experience. He could have had it back then and it probably would have made him a better player.

“He’s doing really well now anyway. I’m happy he’s playing some good footy.”

Like his club-mate, Proctor was approached mid-season by the NZRL about the tour – which saw the Kiwis just fail to snatch a draw in the final Test at Wigan.

“They told us what was happening and we probably weren’t going to get as much pay but it doesn’t matter. Once you get the opportunity to play for your country, I don’t think anyone’s stupid enough to turn that down.”

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And there’s an upside. Because Australian players cried off playing last Spring, the likes of Tohu and Kevin had their feet up for a few weeks with The Big Three sweated it out.

“We’ve had a fair bit of a clean-out actually. We’ve got a new conditioning coach, we’ve got a couple of new physios, a couple of new coaches. I’m actually excited to see what we’ve got when we get back to training.”

Maybe the next visit to Canberra, however, won’t be so exciting…

 Kevin Proctor’s Kiwi Tour Highlights.

One: Liverpool FC. “It was schmick, all their fields. It was probably the best ground I’ve trained on.  Their facilities, their pools, their spas, their gym, they had chefs there and the quality of food they had there as well … they had lamb shanks and all that stuff for dinner. It was probably one of the best feeds we’ve had for the whole trip as well.”

Two: South Of France & Barcelona. “Perpignan was a cool change and Barcelona, we went down there for a couple of days. I’ve never seen a city so big before. We went down that street (La Rambla), we got scooters to go around the city, we got to see … it’s a pity we didn’t stay there for as long as we would have liked. We had four or five hours there, we had a feed there.”

Three: London. “London was cool. It’s just so busy there. I don’t think I could ever live there. It’s just way too busy for me. That was probably the three things that stood out to me.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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The A-List: JEREMY SMITH (Newcastle & New Zealand)

smith-jeremyBy STEVE MASCORD
IT’S the most obvious question to ask any retiring player, a clichéd query that invites a clichéd response, asked more out of obligation than anything else.
And it’s usually saved until last: “what was your career highlight?”.
Jeremy Smith, 36, has more than a few clichés from which to choose: the 2008 World Cup with New Zealand, St George Illawarra’s first premiership in 2010, a grand final success (to which there is no longer a title attached) in 2007 for Melbourne.
Adding to the odds of a response something like “that one!” is the fact that in 13 years of first grade, Jeremy Smith has not been known for outrageous utterances.
“Obviously winning comps and World Cups and Four Nations….” he begins, as he sigs on a concrete partition with A-List outside Wests Mayfield days before his final game.
“But I just think when you’re in the trenches with your mates, defending your line for set after set, the other team not scoring and then….”
He looks off into the distance, like he can actually see battles past.
“You get the ball back and you’ve gone 100 metres and scored a try. I think you take more out of those games than you do out of winning competitions.
“It’s just one of those things. You can look at your mate and your arse is hanging out and you can look at one another and give him a nod and know he was going to turn up for you.
“In tough games – that’s when you get the most joy. It might not be fun at the time, but….”
It’s a prescient metaphor for the entire 200-plus game career of Smith, which ends this weekend. It wasn’t much fun at the time – certainly not for his opponents – but it was pretty damn impressive.
It began in Melbourne – but not at the Storm. They knew nothing about him until he went to Queensland, a curiosity which will amuse cynics.
Smith recalls: “My parents up and moved us from Christchurch to Melbourne and I ended up playing for Altona Roosters down there. I was about 13 or 14.
“It wasn’t the strongest comp. I played there for a couple of years and we up and moved to the Gold Coast to play football and school as well.” There was an ill-fated stint with the Northern Eagles in there somewhere. In 2005, Smith made his debut for Melbourne.
And for a year after that … nothing.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy made it clear that this career might be over at one game, too. “I was playing reserve grade and getting suspended and (had) injuries and what-not.
“Bellyache called me into his office for one of those meetings and he said ‘you’ve got one year left on your contract and if you want to make the most of it, you’d better knuckle down’ and that’s what I did.
“I hit the ground running in the pre-season and the rest is history.”
History includes 22 Tests for New Zealand a fearsome visage at Melbourne, St George Illawarra Cronulla and Newcastle. Like Parramatta’s Beau Scott, he had a reputation as being on-field “security” for the most talented men in the game.
“I wouldn’t say look after them, as such. That’s a tough question, actually. I wouldn’t say I’m a bodyguard but I look after my mates, that’s for sure.
“If they were good enough to play first grade, they’re all equal that’s for sure.
“I definitely relied on my defence …. to be aggressive. Back then, 2006 … it was a pretty tough comp and you could be a bit more physical than what the game is now.”
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At times Smith was painted as a villain for the niggle but he’ll retire with an overwhelmingly positive legacy in the minds of most, to the thinking of this reporter. There’s no escaping, however, his proximity to two of the biggest controversies we’ve had in recent times – the Melbourne Storm salary cap scandal and the Cronulla peptides affair.
“They were fairly big deals at the time,” he nods. “Darkest day in rugby league, it got touted at one time. I wasn’t at the frontline with the boys at Cronulla, that’s for sure. I was up here in Newcastle, we didn’t really get much and Wayne protected me from the media.
“(Current Sharks players) were right there and in the thick of it and I tried to keep in touch with the boys and make sure everyone everyone was going alright, what was getting said and what was going to happen.
“With the Melbourne one, I wasn’t there either. I’d moved on. Copping a bit of backlash from it, it’s part and parcel, isn’t it? I couldn’t really do anything about it. It had already been done.
“I’m not really one to worry about too much, I’m a pretty easy going, happy-go-lucky person. Whatever is meant to be is meant to be and whatever happens will happen. It didn’t really bother me.
“… with the Cronulla … they said that we were going to have the back-dated (suspension), a little three-month stint out … we didn’t really have a leg to stand on there at one stage.
“I’m pretty comfortable with it. It’s all done and dusted now.”
Surprisingly for such a fit man, Smith detests the gym and reckons he may never set foot in one again. The game itself was hard enough and he’s suffered enough for several lifetimes. “You get out of bed and you limp around and you come to training … I’ve got a sore knee, I’ve got a sore shoulder. I probably haven’t been 100 per cent fit since the start of the year. But that’s not only me.
“It is hard, but that’s what makes you who you are, isn’t it? You want to be a tough competitor, you’ve got to put up with bumps and bruises.”
We conclude with me asking if he still actually enjoys playing rugby league. There’s a cheekiness in his answer, but more than a modicum of truth, too.
“I still enjoy playing – you just don’t get away with any more high shots.
“It is still physical. It’s just not as grubby as it used to be….
“You’re not allowed to put your hand on people’s faces for some reason … “

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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The A-List: FRANK PRITCHARD (Hull, New Zealand & Samoa)

Pritchard, FrankBy STEVE MASCORD

“WHEN he walked into training, the session stopped,” Hull coach Lee Radford says. “That doesn’t happen for me, I can’t do that.”

It’s early in the season. The wind howls in off the North Sea. It’s pretty much dark by 5.30pm. Not far from the front door of Hull FC’s striking KC Stadium, past a chippy more battered than anything it sells, boarded up shops and convenience stores with reinforced glass, there are what’s known in England as Estate housing.

Outsiders use words like “bleak” and “grim” to describe Hull. But for Frank Pritchard, posing for photos with a few lingering fans in the cold, it’s not foreign. Not at all.

“We were brought up in housing commission, out west in Campbelltown, everyone waiting for hand-me-downs,” ‘Frank The Tank’ tells A-list, in a corridor outside the KC’s media room.

It wasn’t just the Airlie Birds players who took an instant shine to Pritchard, as Radford recounted. Fans immediately recognised him as one of their own. “Super Frank, Super Frank. Super Frankie Pritchard” they chanted during a pre-season derby against reviled Hull KR, in which he set up a try with his first touch.

Frank is now 32. While the road from humble beginnings to success  is what rugby league is made of, the former New Zealand and Samoa international hasn’t taken the most direct route.

Along with being blessed with size and speed and power and delicate hands, Frank has always had something which coaches increasingly see as a liability – a personality.

In 2006 alone, this correspondent can remember quoting him, while at Penrith, as saying he was sick of playing for peanuts, that Karmichael Hunt would be made to regret choosing Australia over New Zealand (Hunt was smashed in the first tackle of the Anzac Test) and that Melbourne’s Ian Donnelly had eye gouged him.

The move to Canterbury in 2011 seems to have made Frank more circumspect. It’s easy to imagine him being gagged by a famously inward-looking club. He argues not.

“It was just growing as a player,” he says, giggling a little at his early utterances.  “I was a bit immature then, I didn’t know how to handle the media and all that stuff. I could have been a bit more mature with my words, thought before I spoke. I could have chosen better words to use at the time.

“At the time, I was 21 and coming off contract and I had all the clubs chasing me. It’s overwhelming but you’ve got to just keep your feet on the ground.”

On the field, there have always been suggestions Pritchard could have done more, become more. Now, he played well over 200 first grade games and 30 Tests, but….

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“On the field, early in my career, I could have been a lot more dominant instead of just sitting back, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the other player to do something.

“I got to the Bulldogs matured a lot, let the game grow a bit. It was good to play around those guys – Mick Ennis, James Graham and that who are dominant blokes in their own right.”

But can some coaches get more “out” of Frankie than others, as commentators have suggested? Yes, he admits. And Des Hasler is one of those men.

“There’re some coaches that you learn to go that extra mile for,” he answers

 “Just a lot of belief in myself … I was out at Penrith there, had a few good games here and there at Canterbury it was c confidence builder. I got to a club that had a winning culture and it just rubs off on you when everyone is willing to win.

“Dessy’s a mastermind, he’s a magician. During his time there, he’ll get one. I wish I could have won a premiership in my time there, with Mick Ennis and the rest of the boys.”

And of all Pritchard’s seasons at Canterbury, 2013 was the most problematic. Perhaps one day, a book will be written about how the protracted departure of the previous year’s Dally M medallist, Ben Barba, tore the club apart.

“We had a lot of in-house drama there with the Benny Barba saga and stuff like that,” he says, as fellow reporters grow impatient waiting for us to finish.

“Things like that were out of our control. There was stuff like that that shouldn’t affect a team, which it did.

“We made the eight and then we lost the first game of the finals series. It was a bit of a shock and Des blew us up at the Leagues Club, after that game. He blew us up. So he should. He said not enough of the boys wanted to bleed for their brothers. Thirteen wasn’t a good year.”

It was at the end of 2014, during the Four Nations, that Pritchard first heard that Canterbury might be willing to release him early. First it was Catalans, then Salford, and the Warriors posted an 11th hour bid after he had agreed to terms at Hull.

“I gave the club my word …,” he explains, when asked if it was an offer he considered. “I’ve come over here to do a job so the moment I get comfortable, I need someone to kick me in the arse.”

He likes Hull and Hull likes him. “Rough streets” aren’t just a cliché for Frank. In 2007, his brother Tom was stabbed in the heart as they each tried to protect their sister in Penrith.

“I almost lost my brother and two of my relos,” he says. “I come from a family that are big believers in Christ and faith had its role. My brother got another life.”

And so the circle is about to be completed. Football is many things but amid the gossip and adulation we often forget it is a way out for many families, a way to make things better from one generation to the next.

 “Rugby league has helped my family financially, it’s given them a better start in life,” Frank reflects. “I was able to help my family get ahead.

“To every kid out there looking to play footy, it’s a great job. You get to travel and if you’re smart with your money, you can invest it and buy a couple of houses.

“Football’s been great to me.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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The A-List: MICHAEL MORGAN (North Queensland, Queensland & Australia)

RLW Michael MorganBy STEVE MASCORD

“YOU mean THE tackle?” Michael Morgan says, raising an eyebrow.

A-List has just pointed out to the 24-year-old Townsvillian that in sports, you can trade on one thing for your entire life. Exhibit A: Scott Sattler. Exhibit B: the 2003 grand final.

Michael Morgan hasn’t thought about that way before. He hasn’t thought about the impact of setting up the try that tied the greatest grand final of all time, three quarters of a year ago.

He insists it hasn’t changed his life. Yet.

“No, not at all. I think because of the way I see it … I don’t see it at all as I threw the pass to win the grand final. I don’t look at it like that,” he says, before the Cowboys begin training on a typically warm and humid NQ afternoon.

“I genuinely believe that I got extremely lucky and there were other things in the game that I didn’t do that I should’ve. So no, I don’t think it’s changed my life at all. It’s just … look, it’s a very proud moment, one that I will remember for a long time and I’m stoked it happened but ….”

When you retire, though, it could become the focus of every interaction you have with the outside world … just like Satts.

“… no, no, I haven’t thought about that. Yes, I still get asked about it a lot but I think to me it feels like it was only just last year so … we’re still the premiers from the year before.

“People still bring up a bit of last year because it’s early in the season. I think that’s the only reason … I only see it that way.”

You know how you can tell a smart person sometimes by the sparkle in their eye? Michael Morgan – nearing 100 games for the Cowboys, a Queensland State of Origin player – is one of those people.

He’s so steeped in north Queensland rugby league that his grandfather knew Arch Foley, after whom the Foley Shield was named. But he’s still managed the perspective to understand it’s just a game, weekend entertainment for the masses.

“I’d like to think I’ve been pretty level headed, even before,” he nods. “I think it’s a good thing, growing up around my mates and that.

“I went to Iggy (Ignatius) Park here. If you did anything that was cocky or anything like that, you couldn’t get away with it. I was never in a group of friends where that was acceptable.”

That is not to say he hasn’t taken his own career seriously. And the early NRL days, he is happy to admit, were tough. Quite tough, actually.

“When I debuted and first played first grade, that was probably the hardest thing for me,” he says, when I ask about the confidence to speak up as a playmaker.

“One, playing in the halves when I was 18, filling in for Johnno (Johnathan Thurston) for my first game. And then having guys like Mango (Matt Bowen), Luke O’Donnell, Willle Mason. As an 18-year-old I didn’t find I had the authority as a half to tell them what to do.

“I never talked enough. I suppose I wasn’t confident enough. I suppose I was still overawed at the whole situation.

“My debut game, like I said, I filled in for Johnno. It was a Monday night game and I found out the Monday before that I was going to be playing so it was a long week. All the hype about filling in for JT and being from here … there was a lot of talk.

“But I probably struggled with the physicality of it the most. I played four games that year but my body after every game was wrecked. I’d never played against men before. I’d never played local A-grade even. I played high school footy and straight into 20s so my first A-grade game was NRL. So my body at 18, I don’t think was ready. That was the biggest challenge for me.”

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How did it change? Forget all the clichés about maturity and advice from older players. It changed by getting the hell out of the halves.

“I think the year I had at fullback (did it). I think I played 13 games in 2012, that was the most I’d played in a season before 2014 when I went to fullback.

“Moving away from the halves, I didn’t feel like I needed to talk and organise. I didn’t need to be the dominant voice or anything like that. I’d played in the halves with Johnno before but he’s a very dominant player and at times I wasn’t sure how to play with him, as much.

“So when I went to fullback I could follow him, play off the back of him. I wasn’t trying to … not compete for the ball but if there was something on, I wouldn’t have the confidence to call for it I suppose because if he wants the ball he gets it. I didn’t want to call it and stuff up.

“The year at fullback just allowed me to see the game from a different angle and pop up where I could. It was a bit more of a free reign without having to organise and talk. I could worry about myself more than anything and my own role.

“I think that was what made me start to get more comfortable and build into it better.”

Other things contributed to the player we have now, the man who many think would keep Anthony Milford out of the Queensland squad even if he was available. Not all of them were good things.

Like the loss of good friend Alex Elisala to suicide.

“Everything with Alex was extremely hard,” he said, when we finally get around to the topic. “But I think, as well, a lot of people talk about depression they only talk about suicide. Yes, its awful but there’s a lot of different types of depression that people don’t know about so to learn more about the different types of it, knowing that there’s not just one single form of depression, (is important).

“I suppose I grew from it as a person and that kind of thing and I’m just glad I can be in a position where I can help, maybe, one person.”

Back back to where we started. What fascinates me, and probably you if you contemplate it, is doing something so momentous that it changes lives. That literally millions of set of eyes can be on you when you performed a reflex action that will go on to define your life.

The vast majority of us will never experience it. I have to ask again: how does it feel?

“I haven’t actually thought about it. I thought if it didn’t happen, we would have lost because if I get tackled there or we have a go at a kick and it doesn’t come off then it’s ‘game over’ right there.

“But honestly the most I’ve thought, or what I’ve thought, is that we were very lucky because it was just a lucky play, I suppose, the way it all came off.

“I haven’t thought about it in that way, of how many people would have watched it and …

when you think about it like that, I suppose it is a bit. There’s a lot of people just at the game but I suppose with the TV, how much it was on TV, and been played since … it’s pretty crazy really.

“In a way, I don’t know if I’m answering it the way you want me to, but for that week or even months after the actual game, when the trophy went around, we were able to give people a lot of happiness – just from winning that game.

“One game brought so many people so much happiness.

“I think for that period of time, people forgot about their problems – whether it is not having work, struggling financially …

“To know we could actually make a difference in people’s lives like that and give them happiness from winning a football game … to know you’ve, by playing well and working as hard as we all did last year, made people we’ve never met extremely happy for a long period of time…..

“Even now, people still talk to you about the game and where they were for it, what they were doing, how they reacted, who they were with and everyone’s got their own story now of where they were when the Cowboys won their first premiership.

“It feels pretty special to have done that.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
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The A-List: Jason Taumalalo (North Queensland & New Zealand)

Taumalolo, JasonBy STEVE MASCORD

JASON Taumalolo is no expert on the ‘pathways’ paper that earned former NRL head of strategy Shane Richardson a little bit of derision and almost no thanks.

The uber-destructive North Queensland and New Zealand back rower doesn’t know how the document was going to achieve its aim of keeping youngsters at home with their families for longer.

But as he talks to A-List, perched on a plastic chair at a BBQ table outside the premiers’ training facility at suburban Kirwan, the 113 kg Taumalolo makes it abundantly clear what changing countries to be a professional sportsman at the age of 12 does to someone.

He wants to tell me even before I ask a question. At the age of just 22, Jason Taumalolo was burnt out. He wasn’t sure he wanted to play rugby league for a living anymore.

“Last year, the form I was in, I wouldn’t say it was the best footy, what I think I would be playing,” the Auckland-born giant says, not long after sitting down.

“I’ve had issues … I wasn’t eating right. I was turning up late to a few meetings. I wasn’t fully committed to what the team wanted.

“That happens, I guess, to everyone at some point – especially when you’re working. You sometimes think is being here what you want to do?

“Coming from New Zealand at a young age and moving here, not because of anything else but football, it was pretty scary thinking about it.

“It’s one of those jobs where everyone thinks you’re living the life and stuff. They don’t fully know what you have to do and the sacrifices you have to make to get there.

“I knew everyone was on the same page but me. I obviously knew I was letting the team down.”

You don’t hear from Taumalolo anywhere near as much as you should given his status in the game. There could be any number of reasons for this; the presence of one J Thurston sucking all the light away from other Cowboys is likely one of them.

But be honest: how many of you expected to read the words “quietly spoken” in this story?

Jason Taumalolo is NOT quietly spoken. Scarcely into his third decade on Earth, he has already defied the great Mal Meninga – and his own parents – to pledge his allegiance to a country from whence rugby league stole him when he should have just have been still kicking a ball around for fun.

A psychologist might say that choosing New Zealand (he can’t remember more than one or two of his Auckland school mates) was a way of reclaiming his childhood and sense of identity. But just making that choice himself, exercising some self-determination, also led to him questioning everything else.

“When I spoke to Mal Meninga it was a pinch-myself moment,” he recalls of the Maroons’ attempts to poach a Kiwi who qualified for them with one year to spare.

“I’m talking to one of the immortals of rugby league. That was a surreal moment.

“After we had that talk, how he wanted me to pledge my allegiance to Queensland, right then and there I was in awe of who he was and what he wanted. Obviously my parents were for me playing for Queensland.

“But I made up my mind when I was young, playing for the Australian Schoolboys team. I didn’t feel comfortable being in the green and gold jersey.

“When I spoke to Stephen Kearney and a few of the other New Zealand officials, I was quite relieved that all that pressure was over.”

Taumalolo has some great yarns to tell – like how he came to be called Jason despite being born Vaai.

“When I got enrolled in primary school my name was Vaai, what you seen in the passport. The first week in primary school, the teacher kept saying my name wrong and then she ended up just calling me Jason. Then I took my report card home and it said Jason and my mum said ‘ah, who’s Jason?’ And that’s how it happened. Haha.”

And about how James Tamou – the original 21st century Kiwi turned Aussie superstar – helped him to make the exact opposite decision.

“He was saying how much he loved (Origin). He told me ‘look ahead in 10 years. Look at both paths. Tell me which one you’d be more regretful in picking’. If I’d played for Australia, I’d probably regret it. I didn’t want that.”

Have you ever heard a 22-year-old talk about leaving a legacy? This is what Jason – sorry, Vaai – says when I ask him how he refocused after his period of doubt last year.

“When I was a junior in New Zealand I used to go watch the Warriors games, watched the likes of Ruben Wiki and Stacey Jones and even Brent Webb back then. I didn’t even know he’s Australian.

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“You look at rugby union too. I idolised guys like Jonah Lomu, a lot of All Blacks players.

“That was the path I saw. I wanted to leave a legacy as one of the greatest players to play for New Zealand.”

Heady stuff from someone you may have never even heard speak. But if there’s one thing to take out of this chat in steamy Thuringowa, it’s that kids should not have to change countries, states or even cities for football before they are even in their teens.

“It’s the last thing you would expect from a 12, 13 year old to be coming over here just for football,” he says. “Mum and dad were big on me trying to be an A-plus student at New Zealand. Like every good student, when they play a sport and become good at it, they don’t really concentrate that much on school work.

“The last thing a 12-year-old or 13-year-old needs if he’s playing good footy is to put pressure on them.

“There was pressure on me and a lot of wraps. I couldn’t cope, especially at a young age. I understand why the NRL would put a rule like that to protect those kids.

“I’ve seen players come here at a young age. I’ve played Australian 15s, made rep teams with them, they get that rap where they talk them up as the next big thing.

“I look at them now and they’re not even playing NRL. Some of them don’t even have jobs.

“I guess I was one of the luckier ones. I still felt the pressure of trying to live up to the standards that everyone put on me.

“It was a pretty tough period for me. I could tell during that period that I wasn’t playing my best footy either. Some of that led to be being dropped to Q Cup and stuff. I was in and out of first grade.

“The biggest example right now would be young Kalyn Ponga here at the Cowboys, who’s getting raps. I’ve seen him play. He’s a great player. For his young age, not many times have I seen a fullback play like that. I think the last time I saw someone play that kind of footy, pretty much carve every team, was … I remember playing against James Roberts, under 15s. He was playing for NSW, I was playing for Queensland and he was running rings around us like there was no tomorrow. I’d never seen someone single-handedly beat a team.

“To see a kid like Kalyn Ponga come along, and everyone put the pressure on him, I just hope he has the right head on his shoulders and the best support he can (get), mainly from his parents. I’d like to see him one day become one of the greatest players to play NRL.

“All these young kids, they should probably stay home, you know? And develop more as a person.”

We forget they’re people. And in the case of Jason ‘Vaai’ Taumalolo, pretty damn impressive people.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: Josh Hodgson (Canberra & England)

Hodgson, Josh
Photo credit: Rugby League Week
By STEVE MASCORD

HAD Hull Kingston Rovers not tried to extend their contract with hooker Josh Hodgson some 18 months ago, he might be still playing for them.

You read that right.

The 26-year-old returns to Canberra this month for his second season a player transformed. From a solid first-teamer in Humberside who’d had a taste of international football, he kept the legendary James Roby on the bench for the entire winning series against New Zealand.

One popular narrative is how he’s still breaking down barriers a year after smashing through a door at a Dunedin student dorm.

But had the Robins not tried to secure him to a long-term contract in the middle of 2014, Hodgson’s career may have not taken the series of left turns that has him a bona fide rugby league A-Lister heading into the coming season.

“I’d always expressed my feelings to Hull KR that if I’d got my chance to go to the NRL, I’d go,” says the affable Yorkshireman, taking a seat in one of the many lounge areas at the plush St George’s Park Hotel at Burton-on-Trent.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 09.24.13“I’d spoken to them about it previously and I think I’d signed up for another two years. They said ‘why don’t we tie up a new deal and we’ll try to write out the whole ‘you going to the NRL’ clause? We’ll sign a new deal and kick that to the curb so we know we’ve got you for this set period of time’.

“We started negotiations into a new deal for quite a length of time and we probably nearly had it sorted out until my agent told me that Canberra was interested.

“I think they enquired about me.

“Ricky (Stuart) asked Nathan Brown how I went and I think he gave me a good wrap. Then, from what Sticky tells me, he watched a couple of our games and liked what he saw, liked how I played, and just approached my agent to see if I was available and obviously my agent contacted me and told me what the interest was, to see what I wanted to do … whether I wanted to keep negotiations going with Hull KR and probably play out my years there, to be honest, or whether I wanted to go ahead with the dream and go and test myself over there.

“As soon as it came up, I kind of knew what I wanted to do. I’ve got quite a good relationship with the chairman in Neil Hudgell at Hull KR. I sat down with him and had a chat with him and he was good about the whole thing.”

Normally, we’d now be moving on to 2015 and Hodgson’s industrious 24 appearances for the green machine. But we’ve still got a few, um, doors to go through first.

He knew the conversation would get there eventually.

So, England have just been eliminated for the 2014 Four Nations…

“It was at a party. There were holes in the door. The people at the party said ‘we’re getting a new door Monday’. Then someone decided to shout ‘why don’t you run through it?’ They said ‘you might as well, we’re getting a new door Monday’, If the people who owned the place were telling you you might as well do it .. if I’d had my time again I obviously wouldn’t have done it but …..”

Josh Hodgson became a misbehaving NRL player before he was an NRL player.

“We all flew back to Sydney and from Sydney I went to Canberra and they all flew home. We had another night there (in Dunedin) as well.

“I was definitely serious and down and probably hating life a little as well. Just a lot of regrets.

“It got blown up out of proportion. People made out that we trashed the place and it was nothing like that. I don’t want to go into detail too much. It was a mistake and you learn from your mistakes. That’s what everybody does, as a player and as an individual and as a person in life.

“I spoke to Sticky the next morning, He just said the same as you – what happened? I told him what happened. I said ‘what do you want me to do?’ He said ‘we’ll wait donate2until you get back to Canberra’. When I got to Canberra, he said ‘just be honest. Say exactly what you just said to me, tell them what happened and we’ll wipe a clean slate, get you ready and looking forward to training, get you settled in here’.”

It took a couple of weeks for Hodgson, who knew almost before he could walk that he’d be a rugby league player, to get over being in the Aussie headlines.

Then there was a new hurdle: self-doubt.

“It was all really unknown and as much as I’d played four or five years at Super League level I was … not doubting myself but your confidence levels do drop a bit. You do think ‘am I good enough, am I going to make it, will I get in the team at Canberra? Will I make a success of myself over here? What’s the pace of the game going to be like? There’re just so many questions that go around in your mind. You don’t know how you’re going to adapt to that kind of league and that kind of intensity every week. It was a tough time, especially at the start. Mentally it tests you. You’ve got to stay strong in yer ‘ead and back yourself and work hard. (That) is the main thing I definitely had to do. I just had to knuckle down and believe in myself and really put in the hours.”

advertise hereWhat got Hodgson focused was also what shocked him – how competitive it is WITHIN an NRL club.

“The intensity in training and the competition for places was definitely another level. The amount of fighting we had between people itching to get that starting jersey for round one and right through the year the competition for places … the guys that were playing at Mounties the majority of weeks and the guys that were playing first team, we had to do opposed against each other and it used to get pretty full-on because everyone’s trying to impress Sticky and trying to get their name on the team sheet. That was definitely an eye-opener for me and it does bring out the best in ya.”

By the time father Dave and mum Nikki arrived in the national capital for round one, however, their son had the nine jersey in his keeping.

“They came for the first four games and they really loved it. They probably didn’t want to leave, if I’m honest.

“I love Canberra. I think it’s a fantastic place. My mum and dad did as well. It does get a bad rap but I don’t know why. I think it’s just because Aussies like beaches. I ain’t a fan of beaches so I’m alright.”

By the end of the season, our man says, he was a completely different player to the one Rovers had tried so desperately to sign for the rest of his career.

“Decision making has improved in leaps and bounds. My creativity has come a long way through playing in a different competition, just my experience in general, just playing against different opponents. The intensity and the game speed and all that over there, in all areas, I’ve really upped it to another level.”

And while there is a perception in England that the NRL is full of robots, Hodgson says: “Creativity is massive over there – definitely where I’m playing. If there’s a quick play-the-ball I’m going and everyone’s flooding around me and just trying to push off the back of that and as people were saying all year at the Raiders, we’ve played some really good footy this year. I’d say 90 per cent of our tries came off the back of off-the-cuff plays.”

amazonLike Josh, his father played for both teams in Hull. But that’s where the similarities end, he says. Creativity?

“I think he was more of a fighter than a rugby player! He was more of the roughnut, or so the stories that he tells me go. He probably plays himself up a bit. He tells me he was the roughnut they sent on if there was another roughnut in the other team, maybe to try and sort him out.

“He isn’t the best looking bloke in the world so I’m guessing he came off second best a few times.”

Filed for RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: Josh Mansour (Penrith, Lebanon & Australia)

Mansour, JoshBy 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.

advertise here“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.
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“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.

amazonThe 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