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. “