The A-List: PAUL WELLENS (St Helens, England & Great Britain)

Wellens, PaulBy STEVE MASCORD

PAUL Wellens’ appointment as part of England coach Steve McNamara’s support staff for the World Cup may well have prompted some of his long-term St Helens team-mates to offer a wry smile.

“People always say ‘you’d love to be Australian, you would’,” the decorated 33-year-old tells A-List in a coffee room across the road from Saints’ training base, late in the Super League season.

“,,,because I’d always be knocking round with the Aussie fellas.

“What I always do – I’ve always taken it upon myself because I’m a local lad – is when Australians come over, try to make an effort to make them feel welcome.

“It was a lot easier for me when I was young and I didn’t have kids and I had a lot more time, going down the pub with them for a few beers was great. I’ve always liked to make that effort

“It’s not Sydney. It’s not. It’s not golden beaches but they come here and enjoy it for what it is. St Helens is what it is, a working class town, but the people here are great and very honest people who work hard. I think people like that.”

Wellens and McNamara, of course, will be attempting to make life as uncomfortable as possible in Europe this month and next for a certain group of visiting Australians. After reaching 450 games for his club and 46 Test caps, the fullback-cum-utility believes his best contribution these days can be with the aid of a clipboard.

A faultlessly polite and helpful interviewee, Wellens has seen it all in British rugby league. But once upon a time, he could have been looking over the equator in the other direction.

“There’s a time when I was 24, 25 when I was thinking ‘should I go play in Australia?’,” he says over a strong coffee.

“But at that time I was here playing with my best mates, who I’d played with for years – your Keirons, (Cunningham) your (Sean) Longys, Paul Sculthorpe … Jon Wilkin .. we were being successful, we were going to finals every year and I just didn’t want to pass all that up.”

What followed was a long period of success for Saints – which in recent years has tailed off alarmingly. Under new coach Nathan Brown, they were flogged 40-4 by his former club Huddersfield at the start of the 2013 season.

Brown and St Helens got their act together late in the year – to such an extent that they were knocked out by a point on the penultimate game of the season.

For those of you who follow the British game closely, Wellens’ comments on the competitive arc of his club over the past half-decade will appear especially stark.

“From my perspective, for four or five years now, they’ve been saying the club’s in transition. But in many ways, we’ve been kidding ourselves. We’ve really been treading water, more than anything.

“But with Nathan coming in, he’s really started what I feel has been a transition process. He’s altered the way we play, there’s been a positional change with Johnny (Lomax) playing halfback. “Year on year, we’ve lost big players. We’ve lost your Sean Longs, your Keiron Cunninghams, your James Grahams. People probably underestimated how big a loss that was. We’ve not had that stability there. For years, we’ve never been settled enough to make genuine progress.

“The exchange rate makes it hard to bring over those hardcore internationals. If you look at next year, we’ve done fantastically well to bring over Luke Walsh and Mose Masoe.”

But the World Cup is what we’re all worried about right now. We ask Wellens the furthest away from the world no.1 ranking Great Britain or England have been in his time, and when they’ve been closest.

No prizes for the answer to the first question. A scoreline of 64-10 doesn’t exactly indicate competitive parity.

“At the time, it was really exciting – we got to play in Australia and it was my first time in Australia,” he says of the one-off mid-season international in 2002.

“We flew in, didn’t have much time to settled, and at the end of the day we were just outplayed. I think it was probably a real dose of reality we needed over here in the competition.

“We were just falling further and further behind if we didn’t redress that in our ways of doing things, the gap was only going to get wider. In terms of it being …. It was obviously a terrible experience, losing by that many points with a lot of eyes on you.

“It was embarrassing. But in terms of what we learned from it, it might not have been a bad thing.”

Just two years later, in the 2004 Tri-Nations, Wellens thought Britain had cracked it.

“We actually finished top of the group that year,” he recalled. “We’d been beaten at the City Of Manchester Stadium 12-8 by a last-minute Luke Rooney try, but we were in my opinion the better team for an hour. We should have won that game.

“We beat the Kiwis twice and we beat the Australians at Wigan a few weeks later. We were going, then, into the Tri-Nations final soaring with our confidence – and then we got absolutely blow away by a Darren Lockyer-inspired performance. It was frustrating.”

One of England and Great Britain’s biggest problems throughout that time, Paul seems to believe, has been inconsistent selections.

“Selection’s always been something where … you want consistency,” he says.

“Keiron Cunningham, if he could have played a lot more for Great Britain alongside Sean Long … remember in the 2006 Tri-Nations when we beat the Aussies in Sydney? We’d had a fantastic year at St Helens that year and won everything. I was the one, Leon was the six, Sean was the seven, James Roby was the nine … I don’t think that was any co-incidence that the form team throughout the year had the spine of the national side. We won the game and the four of us never played together in that team again. For me it was frustrating. I thought: ‘we’ve just got to run with that now’.”

Ah, but whose fault was that? Long misbehaved on a trans-Tasman flight, was reprimanded by coach Brian Noble and promptly went home.

Wellens mulls this over. “Looking back, I’m sure both Sean and Brian would probably have regrets about the way the situation was handled. Maybe, maybe not. I don’t want to put words in their mouths but it was frustrating because Longy had shown a couple of weeks before in that win in Sydney that when he’s on his game, he’s good enough to boss the team around the field and win you a game.

“Probably, I think, it just wasn’t good that he ended up going home and if Longy is honest with himself he’d probably do some things a little different and the whole scenario wouldn’t have happened.”

Two years later – at the last World Cup – division between Leeds and Saints players in the England squad was purported to be the reason for a risible campaign. Wellens says that’s sort of true – and sort of not.

“I can understand where people were coming from because St Helens and Leeds had played in that many grand finals. They’ve won most of them,” he muses.

“On the field, we didn’t like each other.

“Now for me personally, I get on with all the Leeds players great and I know all the other lads did – personally, one-on-one. You are friends with them and you mix with them. But I think there was something about Saints and Leeds – not individual players not getting on but the rivalry … at the time … it should never have got in the way. I don’t think it really did.

“I just think we had too many players in key positions, myself included, who just didn’t perform well enough.

“I held my hands up after that because my performances weren’t good enough. It wasn’t through lack of effort. It just didn’t go well for me on the trip.”

Welens was five when Mal Meninga graced Knowsley Road. In all his time as a fan and player, the biggest controversy was the 2004 betting scandal. Long and centre Martin Gleeson backed against their team when a host of players was stood down for a game against Bradford.

Long and Gleeson were suspended for three and four months respectively, and fined.

“Quite a few of us knew we weren’t playing. I said to Longy, ‘are you playing’ and he said ‘not playing, not playing’ and obviously they decided to stick a few quid on it and have a bet. I’ll be honest, the thought crossed my mind, I thought ‘I could make a few quid here’ .

“I don’t know of any other players who had a bet but I’m quite certain there would have been quite a few people who made a quid off that game who perhaps never came out.

“That never came out but if I was a betting man …”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: CHRIS McQUEEN (South Sydney & Queensland)

South Sydney - Chris McQueenBy STEVE MASCORD

FROM his tongue stud to his South Sydney playing number tattooed on his neck, Chris McQueen is the archetypal ‘Nu Skool’ rugby league player.

So when he talks about Facebook and ‘the biff’ in the same sentence, he bears listening to.

“I actually saw someone on Facebook last night say ‘bring back the biff’,” says McQueen, 26, perched the the Café On The Park in Redfern, “and I sort of thought to myself: ‘those days are gone’.

“We’re all professionals. No-one goes out on the field and says ‘I’m going to punch someone and hurt someone’. It’s not why we play the game.

“We play the game for success, we play the game for our brothers and for our mates. It’s not about fighting.

“I’m sorry, I know that might disappoint some of the old guys but that’s the way it is.”

For a man who eschews violence, loves Nu Metal and experiments with facial hair the way most of us change clothes, the South Sydney back rower’s football actually seems to have more in common with the past than the current age of hulking wrestlers.

South Sydney old timers see Ron Coote and Norm Proven in the uncompromising, upright running style and tough defence of this former winger.

Now a Queensland State of Originsback rower and set for a pay rise because of it, the Kingaroy product’s success has been a result of three transitions, two of them extremely difficult.

Here, for A-List, he outlines how each of the big moves transpired:

ONE: “The move to Brisbane, I found that pretty easy. My mum has been in Brisbane forever. Also, I did the move to Brisbane with my two best mates from school – Aaron and Ryan Brown, they’re twin brothers. They’re as close to me as my real brothers. I spent my whole life with them. I grew up with and worked with them. I played with them, got a job with them, we went to school together, we were in all the same classes.

“We all moved together to play with Wynumn Manly. I’ve got their names tattooed on my leg, that’s how close we all are.

“You go straight into the team environment and straight away you’re meeting guys, you’re making new friends. It’s not like just moving somewhere with no-one and not having the opportunity to meet people so I found that pretty easy.”

TWO: “When I moved to Sydney, that was a bit harder. Coming into a first grade squad, I didn’t know anyone. I was very shy around the boys. I’d never been to Sydney, just didn’t know my way around and I just felt lost. It took a while, it took a few months but once I got to know the boys and the season came around and we started playing and that sort of thing, it all just happened a lot easier.”

THREE: “Moving to being a winger and an outside back to back row … I played a bit of back row the year before last under (John Lang) but that was more just due to the fact we had so many injuries and a few suspensions throughout the year. That was never going to be a permanent move. When (Michael Maguire) gave me the tap on the shoulder and said ‘I want you to play back row’…. Yeah I was keen to give it ago but it wasn’t a smooth transition. It took a lot of hard work. I had to get my defence up to scratch, I wasn’t fit enough, I struggled with it. I got dropped for five weeks or so … going back to the Bears was a good opportunity to play long minutes and that helped.

“There was a game last year, it was the second time we played the Bulldogs … and I was 18th man and Eddy Pettybourne got hurt. He pulled out, I went into the team and I sat on the bench the whole game.

“Madge said … it was a tight game and he wasn’t sure if I’d have handled it out there. I sort of said ‘have you given any thought to putting me back on the wing? I think I could do a job on the wing for the team’. He dismissed it straight away, he wasn’t interested.

“If he had said (then) ‘yeah, I’ll give you a crack’, we wouldn’t have known what I could have done as a back rower. I guess none of this would have happened, I don’t know where I would have been as a winger.”

Sattler and Provan probably wouldn’t have talked about loneliness and their own failings as a footballer in an interview. But today’s kids have no such reticence.

Through it all, McQueen’s biggest supporter had been his father Kevin. Now a road worker in Cairns, Kevin was born in England – meaning his son is eligible for Steve McNamara’s men – and has 17 tattoos.

Kevin supports Manly, the only other NRL side to show interest in Chris and has already found space for a couple more tatts: one for a bunnies premiership, and one for his son’s (Australian!) World Cup selection.

“He was covered in tatts,” Chris jnr says of his dad, with visible fondness.

“I got my first one when I had just turned 17. The guy that’s done all my tattoos, I used to live with him. He used to live near my old man. He moved from Kingaroy to the Sunshine Coast so we spent a weekend down at his place and he gave me my first tattoo.

“Especially being from a country town, no-one really had tattoos. I was the first of my friends to get a tattoo. Now you look around, even look around our dressing room, more people have tattoos than don’t.

“The tattoos reflect your personality. You can sort of make that link: ‘oh, he’s a bit of a rocker and he has tatts’. But they’re completely separate. You see people from all walks of life with tattoos.

“I’ve seen my old man covered in tattoos. As long as I can remember in my life, he’s been covered so I never gave it a second thought. People might judge but as I say, nowdays everyone’s got tattoos.

“I think a bit of the stigma and the bad reputation has gone from people with tattoos. I wasn’t too worried about it.”

Nevertheless, one of the first pieces of ink Chris got in Sydney was something of a gamble. He smiles at the memory.

“I played four first grade games and got the (‘1070’) tattoo on my neck, which is something I’d never regret, no matter if I left the club or whatever had have happened,” he explains.

“It was always going to be my first club and it was always going to be my first NRL number so it’s always going to be special for me. A couple of weeks after I got the tattoo, I did my knee again – did my ACL – and that was the start of the 2010 season and I was off contract at the end of that year so I was a bit worried, only having four first grade games under my belt and missing the whole second season of that contract, that I was just going to be let go.

“But they came to me pretty quick, the club. Russell (Crowe) actually spoke to me and said they were going to give me another shot, give me another one-year contract which is what happened.

“I feel like I’m a part of the club now.”

Aside from decrying the biff, McQueen is careful what he says on social media and has so far managed to stay away from the front of the paper. But after his debut Origin season this year, there were reports he – to put it bluntly – wanted more money.

“Madge actually came to me after that Origin period and he’s big on player welfare and that sort of thing,” McQueen recounts.

“… and (he) said he would have a look at that. He’s big on paying players what they’re worth. For an Origin starting back rower, Madge – I guess – has an idea in his head about how much he should be paid. We’re going to look at it during the off-season. I know that Madge and the club will do the right thing by me so I’m not pressing the issue. I know we’ll get it sorted out.

“We’re all working really hard. We all love it bit it is really tough so for a club to look after the player and approach them before the player has to approach the club, I think that’s a really good sign.”

There are good signs everywhere for Chris McQueen. Just ask him to show you.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: MATT GILLETT (Brisbane, Queensland & Australian Prime Minister’s XIII)

Brisbane - Matt GillettBy STEVE MASCORD

MATT Gillett squints in the sunshine at Moore Park. We’re standing under a tree but it doesn’t provide much shelter on a balmy Sydney spring day.

And he recounts a pledge his Brisbane Broncos coach, Anthony Griffin, made two years ago, standing in the sun on a field just like this, with his charges gathered around.

“He wasn’t going to be looking anywhere else for any other players,” says Gillett, 25. “That gave us boys a bit of confidence, that he was going to stick with us.

“He said it across the park, to everyone. ‘He’s happy with the group that he has there. He’s not going to go look anywhere else’. It was earlier, the first year.

“He’s always had that. He’s had the faith in all the players who were there at the club.”

That was 2011. The Broncos went to within one match of the grand final that year. The following season it was eighth, this year 12th. The pledge has softened, the promise made to the core of Griffin’s 2008 grand final Under 20s team has expired.

Ben Barba is coming. Anthony Milford might be as well, and after that Cameron Smith. Gillett, who was there that day two years ago, understands the reasons things won’t be the same now.

“Obviously now we’ve got a couple of players coming to the club and a few players moving on also,” he says, gently.

“It’s good for the club, we’ll have a few players moving in there also and it is definitely going to move us.

“People would be asking (Griffin) the questions, not the players. There’s a lot stuff that goes on behind doors that he wouldn’t tell us about. There’s probably a lot of pressure on him at the moment, as of the last year and the year before.

“He’s a great coach, mate – there’s no doubt about that. It’s just the players putting in and doing that bit for him and understanding how it works. We all get along well there.”

The realisation that things had to change, that the 2008 Under 20s side would not win Brisbane an NRL premiership, has been the major off-field development of 2013 for Australia’s most popular rugby league club.

“I don’t know what to say about that,” Gillett says when I ask about the impact of players like Corey Norman, Scott Prince and Peter Wallace edging towards the exit during the Broncos’ 2013 campaign.

“It probably was a bit of a distraction, obviously Princey retired at the end of the year and had his final year with us, Peter Wallace leaving after being at the club for a long time. But it’s all part of what the business is about. It’s football. Any of the players, or the coach, can be there one day and be gone the next. That’s just the way it is and we have to move on with that. I do feel sorry for some of the players who have to leave, obviously they’re good mates and that sort of thing.

“We’ll still be friend outside of football.”

Gillett is a straightforward, friendly sort of fellow. If you’re looking for an indication of his character, then take his decision to stay with his mates at Wests Arana Hills when he first had the chance to join the Broncos Colts.

“I was there in the pre-season and during the year and halfway through the year I went to the Broncos and played a few games there with Hook,” he says, when asked to recount the story.

“I was playing back at Arana and our team got to the grand final at Wests and the Broncos … the next week, it was the start of their finals campaign. I decided to go back and play with my mates at Arana that I thought was the right thing to do.

“I left the Broncos. I had to tell Hook what I was doing and he wasn’t too happy and didn’t understand what was going on.”

The decision left Gillett tumbling back down the pecking order – but his startling ability was such that he was never going to be down there long. “I went to Norths the next year to play Queensland Cup and Ivan (Henjak) gave me the opportunity to do the pre-season,” he recalls.

Blessed with immaculate footwork, a deft offload and ability to pull off thunderous hits, Gillett was a boom commodity in his debut season of 2010, winning the Dally M rookie of the year. He was also considered one of the most acute cases of Second Year Syndrome of recent seasons, although he didn’t play badly in ’11 by any means.

Rather than “bounce back” like a character out of a clichéd pulp story, he’s found his own equilibrium.

“I’ve got a lot better … understanding the game more,” he says. “Having a few years under the belt playing NRL footy is a big thing and I think, for the young blokes who come through, after a couple of years they’ll realise the same thing. Once you are a regular first grader, you do get used to it and the body does react to the game.

“I used to come off the bench and play limited minutes. Now I’m starting at the Broncos which I’ve been loving this year. Cementing a back row spot at the club has been be a big thing for me and it’s going to be another tough ask next year.”

Rather than feel the pressure to make an immediate impact, Gillett now gauges his effectiveness over the whole 80 minutes.

“I’m still trying to get that off-load out when I can but I’m playing a bit smarter footy now, now that I’ve been here a couple of years. I’m just picking the times to do that sort of thing.”

And the bell-ringers are harder to pull off now the shoulder charge is banned. “I got away with one when we played Newcastle. (Akuila) Uate ran straight at me and I panicked. He was running pretty fast. I just put the shoulder like that. It wasn’t intentional but he dumped me off anyway and went away. “

But Matt has had things going in in the background which put trite accusations of Second Year Syndrome into perspective.

In July 2009, his friend and Bribie Warrigals team-mate Todd Parnell was king hit and killed outside Bribie Island Leagues Club. Since then, Parnell’s mother Jenny has been to watch many Broncos home games as the case got bogged down in the courts.

In the past couple of weeks, it has reached some kind of closure. There were reports of a clash between Parnell’s family and that of the accused, Wally Hung, when the verdict was handed down.

“He got sentenced to seven years – the same sentence he got last time and can apply for bail in 2015, in December,” says Gillett.

“Tony, Todd’s dad, is the one who rang me up the other day and told us what was going on. He seemed pretty down at the time, as you would (be). It’s definitely been a tough time for them, with the case dragging on, so I suppose they would be happy that it’s been sorted out now.”

Gillett gives the impression he is not overly happy with the sentence. “You think that if he gets bail in two years … I can’t comment on what the result was so… yeah.”

Just as he still likes returning to Bribie to “get away from football”, Gillett will be able to escape everything this week with his second trip to Papua New Guinea, for the Prime Minister’s XIII’s annual clash with the Kumuls on Sunday.

That’s why we’re here at Moore Park, for training.

“It’s pretty awesome,” he says with a smile. “You get the luxury of playing with other players from other clubs and meeting new fellas and just learning from other players.

“Seeing what type of blokes they are off the field is a good thing as well. Everyone’s a good fella off the field. Some of the boys are a bit of a pest on the field. Everyone tries to put everyone off their game.

“It’s all part of the game …. happy days. “

The A-List: JAMAL IDRIS (Gold Coast, NSW, Indigenous Allstars & Australia)

Canterbury - Jamal IdrisBy STEVE MASCORD

“The first few swings missed me, I ducked back and it went across my face. The next time it got me…”

Jamal Idris is talking about September 2010 in Forster, where – at a family gathering – he was attacked with a samurai sword.

“The sword sat there for a while so it got fair rusty. Thank God. It was a fair big sword too, it was about the size of my arm or so.

“… it bounced off my neck. What can you do?

“(The assailant) put himself in two days later, he was in for a while, got back out, and he was in again for a while. Obviously, he’s my cousin. He got out again, then he went back in again. I think he’s been in, maybe, two or three times since then.”

That is, in jail. In almost any other area of journalism, this would be an extraordinary and disturbing conversation. But Idris, 192cm and seemingly still growing, just sits there and smiles as he tells it.

We are in the foyer of what used to be the Titans’ Centre of Excellence, one Thursday afternoon. Idris is still recovering from the leg injury which prematurely ended his season. Training has finished for the day and he says he hasn’t got anything better to do than chat to A-List.

No subject is off-limits. For all the brutality of his profession, Idris is an ingénue, a man unable or unwilling to be as cold and dispassionate as his contemporaries. The topics veer from his litany of injuries, moving to the second row, African rugby league and his new academic pursuit, journalism.

But the most moving subjects are family, racism and bigotry. Jamal’s childhood on the NSW mid-north coast looms large for him, and he seems to harbour a deep sense of having being wronged since he walked through a set of gates that led to the outside world.

“I did grow up with a strong sense of family but I grew up in an aboriginal mission,” he explains. “You go outside them gates … when I was younger I did walk into a shop and they kicked me out because they thought I was stealing. I sat there and I looked at them and I was, like, ‘are you serious?’, and they were ‘get the eff out of my shop, you’re stealing you effing black, yada yada yada’. I was maybe 13, 14 years old.

“You don’t understand racism as a kid but as you get older you start to see it and you see your cousins getting arrested, you see people in your family being stopped by cop cars as they walk down the street, and you sit there and you start saying ‘what’s going on?’ You start thinking the world’s against you.”

To illustrate his viewpoint, Idris describes a schoolyard fight in which he punched a kid three years his senior for a racist slur.

“As a kid, you don’t understand. I looked at it, like, he can say anything he wants and I can’t do anything about it. I felt helpless. He (principal) said ‘I’m going to ring your mum’. I stood up, I was in year three so I was seven or eight or so, and I said ‘fine, effing call my mum” and I walked out.

“It all falls back on the parents, that kind of racism. Kids don’t walk around saying those kind of things. Where have they heard it?”

The 23-year-old Australian international recently spoke out against a parent who described a 13-year-old Mudgeeraba Redbacks player as a “fucking nigger” from the sidelines and finds suggestions that racism is fading laughable.

“It’s not in the past, it does happen, that’s stupid,” he says. “The people who believe that aren’t opening their eyes. That annoys me when they say it doesn’t happen anymore. Are you kidding me? Australia’s a young country, of course it’s still happening. It’s frustrating, man.

“That little kid .. he’s a grown man, this is a kid on the field. Who does he think he is?”

Like Jamie Soward and Scott Prince, Idris is taking an interest in journalism and media as a career after football. Like both of them, he has had his run-in with the fourth estate. Those baby-fat photos from a couple of years ago have left much more of a scar than the samurai sword.

“I was 17 or 18 years old and for a bloke to come out and write something like that …. why doesn’t he look at the people in his family, why doesn’t he look at the people in his life. What’s he doing?

“You’re walking down the street and someone’s saying something. You pick up the paper and someone’s saying something. All I do is read the person’s name who wrote that and the next time they try to talk to me – good luck!

“There’s a lot of criticism that’s constructive. If they’re criticising something that I didn’t realise, I’ll look at it and go ‘fair enough, what can you say?’.”

Likewise, Idris was shaken by criticism of his form last year when he was battling the effects of a congenital hip problem, which required surgery. “All of a sudden, round five this year, people say ‘what’s the difference, what’s the difference?’.

“The difference is: I’m not injured. I can run. I can play. The people that who were bagging me are all of a sudden sitting there sucking up to me.

“People look in from the outside and say ‘he must be disappointed, he didn’t do this, he didn’t do that’. I’m happy and blessed every time I run onto a field. When I’m most upset is when I am injured.”

Playing for Canterbury in Sydney between 2008 and 2011, Idris found these two issues – race and celebrity – forming a poisonous combination.

“I got real flustered in Sydney,” Idris says. “In Sydney, you walk down the street and people go for Parramatta. Just because you play for Bulldogs, they want to fight you. There’s so many teams in one area, they think it’s their right to say whatever they want.

“I used to be a fan when I was a kid. I used to love supporting it. But, you know, if you don’t support someone and their team, it doesn’t give you the right to go beyond that and start insulting their family, insulting their race. Insult the team, say what you want, whatever. But for me personally, that’s going too far.’

But, as detailed at the start of this story, Jamal found that even Forster stopped being a refuge after he had become a big star in the city.

“Some of my family members, if I don’t go back to Forster for a year, because I’m playing football, I come back at Christmas time and they say ‘what, you think you’re too good for us because you play football?’ Simple little comments like that and it gets exaggerated when they drink alcohol, you know what I mean?

“You’d go out in the Cross and someone would try start a fight with you, argue with you, and you’d see his mate filming it. Sure enough, you look at the paper the next day and they say ‘so and so was out at this time having a fight’ They don’t say what led into it.

“When they were talking about Choccy Watmough and Matai, when they got bashed and jumped by five or six blokes at, I think, Stevie Matai’s house, and they turned it so negative on him. I thought, ‘they’re victims. They’re at home. They got jumped. What’s going on? Should they not breathe?’

“At the end of the day, why so negative on us? For trying to live a normal life? They go ‘oh, you’re a role model’. We are role models, we go out and do the right thing. They don’t put in the paper every time we go to children’s events or a hospital but they’ll put it in every time they see us out or they see someone blowing up at us or there’s a scrap.

“You know why? Because it sells papers.”

Idris says he’d like to try coaching as well as media work upon retirement. He’s been paying his own way to away matches to cheer on the Titans. He’s anxious to move into the forwards, saying it probably suits his game more. And over the next two months, he will travel to Nigeria and meet pioneers trying to start rugby league there.

“Africans as a race: fast twitch muscles, we’ve got all the skills,” he says enthusiastically. “In saying that, we’ve got to get our hands right.”

Hang on, isn’t that racial stereotyping? “I am African,” he responds. “I said ‘we’, I didn’t say ‘they’.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Jamie’s Slim London Pickings

P1030071By STEVE MASCORD

FROM here, Jamie Soward could throw the ball over the crossbar.

We are sitting on the rock hard surface of the Richardson Evans Memorial Ground, training headquarters of the London Broncos, just over 20 metres out and to the right of the posts.

Of course, Penrith recruit Soward would not attempt to throw it over. Instead, he’d step back at right angles to the ball, extend his fingers like a sprinter, jog on the spot, and move in to strike the pigskin before replacing his headgear.

Squinting in the sunshine, he says one such goal attempt – missed – brought about the premature end of his St George Illawarra career.

“I guess I was disappointed I was dropped the week after I missed a penalty goal against Canterbury,” says the 28-year-old,

“Tough game, they’re a great team and we were in the game for only the last 10 minutes, really. So we didn’t really deserve to win.

“(But) It’s never one thing that breaks up a relationship.”

Soward was criticised for cutting his losses and not playing out the season with the Illawarra Cutters. The joint venture’s results since suggest he would have got another chance in first grade, where his long kicking game has been missed.

“I think that was a bit of loyalty from Dousty (chief executive Peter Doust),” the man himself says. ”He didn’t want to see me playing reserve grade for the rest of the year and having to answer questions week-in and week-out and I didn’t want to do that either.

“The results back home for the Dragons have probably stayed the same.

“Obviously the circumstances of a player signing for a rival club for the rest of the year is not ideal but in saying that, I’m a business, myself, and I need to look after my family going forward.

“Some people understood that. Some people weren’t happy with it. If I ask you the same question: if I give you security for the next four years, five years, are you going to take it or are you going to roll the dice?

“The relationship between myself and Dragons had been great while we had been winning. It was just a tough start to the year. All that sort of combined with me signing.”

The man with the Dragon tattoo – a 2010 premiership tattoo on an inside biceps – played off the bench a few hours after landing in London and endured a 70-0 Challenge Cup semi-final flogging at the hands of Wigan.

The Broncos play before tiny crowds – their entire season home attendance equals roughly one game at Suncorp Stadium by their Brisbane namesakes – and there is intense speculation their owner David Hughes will withdraw support and they won’t be in Super League next year.

“This experience has taught me about patience,” says Soward, about halfway through a wide-ranging chat conducted at the end of training.

“Sometimes I guess I’ve said the wrong thing or it’s came out the wrong way. I’ve had to really sit back and take it all in whilst losing and I’m learning quickly because I’m only here for a short time.

“I feel a lot more relaxed than I was back home. I guess the fishbowl effect gets to you and slowly, I think – keeping an eye on the game back home – some of the media’s starting to understand that.

“It is 24-7, your job. You get paid well and we do understand we’re role models but we need to work together to grow our game. You need to work on your game and I need to work on my game.”

Soward is a magnet for criticism, perhaps because – as a general sports nut who wants to work in the media upon retirement – he is acutely aware of it and all too happy to engage his detractors.

When he quotes Wally Lewis on the subject of dealing with critics, those critics think he is comparing himself to the The King as a player.

Even in the Challenge Cup semi, there were reports of him jousting with fans, who chanted ‘taxi for Soward“

“It said that I spat at the crowd but I just turned around riled them up a little bit – just a little bit of fun,” he explains.

“I think most media people that sit down and talk to me one-on-one realise that I’m not the prickly guy that (I am when I) get 10 people in front of him, asking why we keep losing.

“I couldn’t understand their chants so the one I did understand, I just turned around and … taxi’s universal, isn’t it?

“Back home, there’s a lot more fans. Being at St George, you might go to a function and there’s 2000 fans who want to talk to you after you’ve played.

“Sometimes, I’ve probably not been in the mood and I haven’t wanted to talk to every single person but they keep the game going.

“I’m just human. I’m not in a good mood every day and I don’t say the right things every day. I’m seeing a lot more support for the players, especially since the new TV deal’s come in.

“The media want more access but they have to realise that we’ve got careers we’ve got to protect and if we’re getting bagged every day then it’s not going to help either of us, really.”

Soward says he speaks to some Dragons players daily and that he’s looking forward to learning the names of his new Penrith team-mates (“like the first day at school”), although in truth he probably already knows their weights, heights and nicknames.

He’s tried shutting footy culture out, he says, but it doesn’t work for him

“When I come up against the Dragons, I guess I’ll get booed. But what’s the difference? I get booed everywhere I go.

“I’m not a big head by any stretch. If I say it, I say it how it is. If I get booed, I get booed. I was happy they even knew who I was, over here. It’s all good fun, mate.

“I need to be more relaxed and the media probably need to take me less seriously.”

Filed for: SUN-HERALD

The A-List: SHAUN KENNY-DOWALL (Sydney Roosters, NRL All Stars, Maori & New Zealand)

Sydney Roosters - Shaun Kenny-DowallBy STEVE MASCORD

YOU’VE heard the story a dozen times, about how Shaun Kenny-Dowall was a backpacker when he showed up to Sydney Roosters training in 2006.

It was believable. If a New Zealand backpacker was going to turn up anywhere in Sydney, Bondi was as likely a destination as any.

By the end of 2007, he was playing for the All Golds in the Centenary International against the Northern Union. There’ve been nine full Test caps since, plus NZ Maori and NRL All Stars appearances. This year, everything was supposed to really fall in place for the 25-year-old.

The Roosters are on top of the table, ‘SKD’ has two more years to run on his contract and the bad days for the tricolours are well in the past. Instead, halfway through the season, the lanky winger or centre found himself on the outer among supporters and linked to a mid-season transfer.

Just when he should have been enjoying the fruits of seven years’ labour, Kenny Dowall was suddenly under pressure. Standing in the tunnel at Allianz Stadium, he tells A-List why.

“I’ve still had a pretty rough period this year at the club,” he nods.

“I had a couple of injuries … rib cartilage … and I was down on confidence a bit. The support of everyone at the club, that got me back on track and I’m pretty happy with where I am at the moment. I’m still looking to improve.”

There’s an old saying: if you play injured, you have to prepare to be judged the same as those who are 100 per cent fit. No excuses.

“It’s never and easy thing to do but if you have the right mentality, you can do anything,” Shaun, quietly spoken and friendly, says.

“I didn’t want to not be a part of it. That was much worse than being injured. I got needled up for a few weeks. It was about four or five weeks. That’s always tough but, like I said, it was something special and I didn’t want to not be part of it.”

SKD must have bitten so hard on his lip in the face of swirling sleights about his ability during this time, the pain would have been comparable with that of his throbbing ribs. Being criticised and resisting the temptation and speak up about those injuries?

“It’s quite character building,” he responds. “You learn to deal with it and you learn to get over it. That’s part of our game. We’re in the spotlight and I found I was strong enough to put it aside and concentrate on my job, which is footy.”

He doesn’t completely dismiss the idea that a mid-season transfer was something that had been suggested. But he insists it was never really going to happen.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “Nothing really came of it. I tried to put that all aside and concentrate on what I could control and that was preparing to play the best footy I can. I love the Roosters and that’s how it is.

“I’ve only been at one club, the Roosters are all I know and I love it here. There’ve been times where it’s been close. Every year when you’re off contact, you’ve got to leave your options open. But I’ve got two more years here as it stands at the moment.”

Recent weeks have been kinder to Shaun Kenny-Dowall. His stats have improved, he’s flitted between centre and wing depending on injuries and suspension elsewhere, and no-one’s talking about him leaving anymore.

As he said, there’s something special happening at the Roosters this year – something he wants to be part of.

“It’s job-half-done but we’re pretty ecstatic to be in the position we’re in,” he smiles. “We get to play finals football again. It’s been a couple of years at the Roosters and we’re all proud of our efforts and we’re all excited.

“It’s the coach, the players’ mentality… I think everyone has bought in on the same direction and everyone’s doing good things off the field. It makes it better when everyone around you is on the same page, all have the same goals.

“It’s taken a while for things to fall into place but we had a clear direction of where we wanted to be headed. We knew what the expectations were but we knew it was going to take some time as well. We’re still not happy with where we are at the moment, we still … it’s hard to put into words, bro….

“We knew we had something special and that got better every week. The wins started to come and we started playing more consistent footy and we got confidence out of that. We’re in the position that we are now.”

Since Shaun Kenny-Dowall rocked up at training in 2006, “it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, right? We’ve had success and we’ve been at the bottom of the ladder and won the wooden spoon. “

The rollercoaster is being pulled back to a peak. A return to the New Zealand side for the Anzac Test will almost certainly be a precursor for a World Cup call-up. It’ll be Kenny-Dowall’s first trip to the UK since the shambolic 2007 Kiwis tour.

“It was definitely was a disaster,” he says with a wry smile, “and a lot of the younger players who experienced that would be greater for having gone through that time. They know what to expect and what’s required this time.

“I was still young back then. I learned a lot from that trip. Everyone just wasn’t playing their role, I guess.”

With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck a fullback next year and Anthony Minichiello moving to the wing, it would appear SKD is going back to the centres given the form of Daniel Tupou.

“I’m just happy to be on the field with this awesome team,” Shaun says.

“That’s next year. I’ve played centre most of this year and that’s my main position. I’m on the wing at the moment but we’ll just have to see where it goes.”

So, for the dozenth time, let’s tell The Backpacker Story, about how this tourist walked in off the street and became a footy superstar.

A quiet chuckle.

“I definitely wasn’t a tourist,” he responds. “I didn’t have anywhere to stay so I lived in the backpackers for four months until I found my feet.”

Having lived in Brisbane as a kid, Kenny-Dowall could probably mount an argument for Origin selection. He wouldn’t be the first.

“Both my parents are from New Zealand and I was probably conceived in New Zealand,” he says, looking like no-one has ever suggested this before.

“I moved back to New Zealand when I was one year old. I’m a proud Kiwi.”

One year old? What were your parents doing crossing the Tasman so late before you were born and so soon afterwards?

There’s a roll of the eyes, another smile.

“It was actually my mum, trying to get away from my dad. He followed her over here and they both moved back to New Zealand.

“So that was that.”

Between the pages of the oldest stories, there’s always something new if you look hard enough.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK