The A-List: ANDREW FIFITA (Cronulla, City, NSW, Indigenous All Stars & Tonga)

Fifita,Andrew%202013NRLHBy STEVE MASCORD

WHEN Andrew Fifita talks about “the coal train”, he’s not making a reference to Dave Taylor. He’s talking about an actual coal train.

“It’s when we were down in Griffith that I found it,” the NSW prop says, recalling a vivid childhood memory. “Not walking around but jumping on the trains … there was that one big coal train and it would only go five K’s an hour.

“Instead of walking, it would have been a good 2 km into town, you’d just sit on the back of the train. It would have been going about walking pace.

“We jumped the fence. All the boys would run over and jump on it.”

I’m not quite sure how we got onto the coal train. I think it may have been a question about how the 194cm prop managed to keep the weight on after years of struggling to maintain his bulk.

He admits a previous interview in which he said beer was a great assistance in this area was “not good for the kids”. Jumping a safety fence in a determined pursuit of laziness? Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.

In any case, it’s entirely likely that Fifita doesn’t even know that Gold Coast forward Taylor is called “the Coal Train”. He hadn’t even heard of at least one of his team-mates in the Origin decider a couple of weeks ago, he admits.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the footy growing up,” says Fifita, who passed up a promising rugby union career (and riding coal trains) to join Wests Tigers in 2010.

“I wasn’t the type to sit there and watch a footy game. It was tough to match the faces to the names. Even McManus , I just met him (before Origin III) and I didn’t know who he was.

“I was asking ‘who’s James McManus?’ I know a few from playing against them and that but to be honest I didn’t know who he was. Everyone’s saying he’s top tryscorer….

“I follow basketball a bit, I’m not a big fan of it. NFL… a bit of everything. Aside from that, I just like watching movies and chilling out.”

As A-List moves into its fifth year, we’re noticing a discernible trend among players in interview situations.

When the Johns Brothers were at their peak, they finished a game with a message in mind. They were canny enough to realise they weren’t speaking to journalists but to fans and the sort of leadership and influence they exercised in a team environment could also be applied to the general public.

Then, with the Super League War, we had the age of the soundbite, with players trained to use the question as part of their answer for the sake of TV and their comments sounding impressive but completely lacking any substance.

Then we had the era of scandals and gossip, when our players shut up shop completely.

Almost 20 years later, there are signs that the philosophy of our stars has come the full circle. Men like Fifita and last week’s featured player, Josh Reynolds, have stopped being scared of us and are instead trying hard to offer considered insights into themselves and their motivations, believing that being viewed positively by readers, listeners and viewers will be to their personal benefit.

phonto (1)“I’m still learning the game,” Andrew says at one point. “I got a lot of pressure from family and friends, saying ‘get your fend out, go do that, I want to see the x-factor back’. Flanno (Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan) has always said to me ‘when we’re coming out of our own end, go dead straight. Who cares? Don’t worry about the fancy stuff. But when we’re inside the 40 and going towards the tryline and in our good ball, do whatever you want’.

That’s right, whatever he wants. “Do a runaround, “ Fifita laughs. Or maybe a chip and chase? “I’ll give one a go. I’ve had a few in my time.”

Fifita remains wide-eyed about the Origin experience – and ambitious about what it can deliver.

“I walk past the rooms and I see some of the guys like Mitchell Pearce doing extras, Jarryd Hayne was stretching … doing the little things like icing up and for me, as an inexperienced person, I was going ‘wow, this guy’s really professional’.

“Now I know why Flanno’s always saying to prepare like a professional. I’ve never ever done that stuff. I guess, coming into Origin, it’s a big thing for me and I’ll learn a lot. I didn’t care if I was in the 17, as long as I got 18th man or something like that. Just to be close to Origin, I would learn something.

“I used to be professional but I wasn’t that professional. It’s a whole other step. I think I still have a long way to go. I’ll stretch in my room now, if I get a little niggle I’ll ice up.”

How many Origin players have memorised the pools at the 2013 World Cup? Fifita believes he should be allowed to represent Tonga if he misses out on Tim Sheens’ side.

“I really pushed to play for Tonga this year (mid-season) but they wouldn’t allow it. They’re in … I wouldn’t say the hardest pool. They’re in a good pool. If you wanted to be in any pool playing for Tonga, you want to be in that pool. I really feel they’ve got a really strong chance of getting in the semi-finals. They’re going to have a tough time with Scotland and Italy but…”

Why did his twin brother David sign with Cronulla instead of Melbourne? Just ask and you’ll get a straight answer.

“Melbourne were offering him a two-year deal but they wanted to train him up this year and give him a go next year,” Andrew responds.

“I really wanted to help him and show him the way I’ve learned and I really wanted him to be with me and his family and all the family back here. I couldn’t see him going down there on his own. He just got back from France. I said ‘give it a year, you can always do that next year. If they really want you bad, they can grab you’.

“I’m real proud of him. He’s been training by himself when he gets up, does his extras and things like that. “

And on why he is determined to make the most of every opportunity: “Football can end at any time. I realised that when I was playing with Simon Dwyer. That was shocking, that’s when I realised football could be over like that. I could be gone in a flash.

“It was a bad way to go out of the game. He’s still trying to get back into the game. He’s only 24 this year. You never know. My thoughts are with him and I think he could make it back if he really tried.”

So, to finish up: what transformed Andrew Fifita from train-hopping hobo to barnstorming Blue? We glean two things here, one straightforward, another not-so-much…

“I guess the family has come into the scenario and knowing you’ve got to take every opportunity you can,” he says. “… when it came down to it, I just put my head down and I wanted to achieve much more than first grade. I had a dream of playing first grade and I got it. Then I saw an opportunity there for more than first grade. I’ve knocked two of them off and I wish I could get the third one … and Australian jersey.”

The second? Actually, appendicitis which resulted in Fifita being rushed to hospital for surgery just over a year ago. In fact, Cronulla doctor Dave Givney organised the surgery from the sideline during a State of Origin match in which he was acting as NSW medico.

Givney wasn’t in the Blues camp this year but Fifita says it’s a direct result of the ailment that he was. “When I got my appendix out, I was watching the game. I think I was watching Warriors and I was watching the way they played. It was good to sit out from a game …

“The following week we went up to Brisbane and I went as 18th man. I knew I wasn’t going to play because I just got my appendix out but I sat in the coaches box and I watched again and I came back from that week off and I started … doing my job.”

Andrew Fifita is still on that coal train, figuratively anyway. And it’s going a lot faster than 5 KPH.

“I still feel young and if I could stay in those rep teams for years to come, I would. That would be the best thing. It’s everyone’s goal. Once you’re up the top, you don’t want to come back down.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

The A-List: JAMES MALONEY (Sydney Roosters, Country & NSW)

James Maloney/wikipedia

James Maloney/wikipedia

By STEVE MASCORD

HERE’S the thing about James Maloney. Call it a life lesson, if you wish.

If you believe what you read, his brashness hurt him in Melbourne. He walked into the joint and treated superstars like he had known them all his life, taking the Mickey out of professionals who weren’t really even sure who he was.

They didn’t like it, so the story goes. But he didn’t change.

And four years later it was the very same qualities – brashness, confidence – that got him selected for NSW for all three Origin games of the series and made him the first Blues five-eighth to ever win on debut.

It would be easy to describe it as an example to all of us who are put under pressure to change. The example being, “don’t”. A-List sets out to discover if it’s all that simple.

“I suppose I’m not too shy in meeting people and things like that,” Maloney, who was 22 when he was at the Storm in 2009, says as we sit down in the foyer of the Coogee Crowne Plaza

“It never sort of phased me. There’re a few stories from the Melbourne days that have been reported and they’re a bit glorified, I think, but they’re based on truth. There’s some truth to them.

“It was all just … I walk in, I am who I am and that’s the way it was. I got on with a lot of the boys down there – sweet. I suppose when I first got in, they might have been like that but I have a good relationship with most of the boys down there.”

Maloney played only four first grade games for the Storm but one of them was his proudest moment. He made his debut two months after his father, country football star Brian, died following a long illness. It was Brian who encouraged Maloney to join the Storm.

The decisions to join the Warriors and then to sign with Sydney Roosters a year in advance, however, “Jimmy” made on his own. They required confidence – a quality that may have rubbed some in Melbourne the wrong way – and they have borne fruit. Spectacularly so.

James doesn’t seem a huge fan of this subject, his supposed cockiness, but he admits it has helped him in recent times.

“I think that being confident and backing your ability and that … I think that’s a big part of how you go on the field and I suppose coming into an arena like State Of Origin, there’s so many quality players around that you can’t afford to be overawed,” he says, through a lips that are only just healing from a horrible laceration suffered in Townsville.

“….otherwise you’re not going to be there long. Playing in the halves, it’s part of the territory. You’ve got to be able to control things and push blokes around the park and tell them what to do so, yeah, I suppose it helps being like that.”

Maloney’s story so far is one of a man who may not have reached his current heights if not for taking the right turn at various intersections. Then again, other choices may have led him to greater success, earlier, too.

Geography – Orange to Ourimbah to western Sydney and onto Melbourne and Auckland – played a role. So too, as things turn out, did climate.

“I was born in Orange and then when I was 10, moved to the Central Coast and grew up there,” he says. “We were at Orange and a few of mum’s brothers were on the Central Coast and she had family in Newcastle. I think they were sick of the cold out there. They wanted to get closer to the coast so that was the main reason.

“I first came into Sydney through North Sydney. My last year, in the 20s, I came down and played with North Sydney

“Under 9s was my last year out at Orange then obviously I grew up playing at St Edwards Ourimbah on the Central Coast. It was a school (side) but they also had a club side on the weekend.

“Sport, as a kid … you love playing sport and dad being a footballer, he used to coach me through a lot of my early years. You just sort of fell into it I suppose. I always wanted to play footy. Mum wouldn’t let me when I was real young.

“It wasn’t until under eights, not until I was eight. “

Maloney was in the fulltime squad at Parramatta in his first year there, 2007. But an ankle injury put paid to that campaign. “It was my first real injury and, being a young bloke, I sort of stuffed around with it and didn’t take the rehab and the physio as seriously as I should have,” he concedes.

So the next year, he found himself with feeder team Wentworthville. “We had Joey Galuvao, Jeremy Latimore, Brod Wright, Johnno Wright. We’re still good mates,” he recalls.

“I had a couple of games where I was on standby to make my (NRL) debut but it didn’t quite happen. I think, at the time, I thought I was playing good enough footy to earn a crack. I was off contract, (Michael Hagan) wanted me to stay but the opportunity in Melbourne came up. I spoke to my old boy about it and he was pretty keen. We looked at it and he said ‘there’re not many footballers that go to down to Melbourne and don’t improve as footballers’ and that was sort of the reason for going there.”

He was close to an Origin call-up a number of times in his three years at the Warriors (2010-12). Maloney’s signing with the Roosters with a year left at Mt Smart prompted widespread debate on the current rules regarding transfers.

“I don’t like the fact that you can change your mind,” he says, when asked about the NRL’s refusal to register a contract any earlier than June 30 the previous year.

“I think that’s pretty ordinary. I think that if you’re going to do something, that’s what you do. Signing 12 months out, that’s a hard thing. There’s no real … I haven’t come across a perfect system. They tried the June 30 and I think everyone knew there was plenty (of negotiation) going on before June 30. As soon as June 30 hit, there were 20 contracts being registered on that day, so it’s a hard thing to police. If you’re going 12 months out, being able to change your mind and renege and all that is a bit … it causes dramas. Personally, it didn’t bother me signing 12 months out.

“I had security for the next year plus three on top of that so I had four years sorted out. It’s good to know, now with kids and a family, you’ve got to plan things. If I was going to Queensland, I can’t just pick up and move. So as far as the players are concerned, I think it works for them.”

The Roosters did try to get him to cross the ditch early. “We asked the Warriors and they said ‘no, you’re here for your contract’ and that was the end of it”.

As we said earlier, it was be easy to contend Maloney’s refusal to be anything other than team joker has served him well. But he does seem to have toned it down. At the Warriors he would try to distract team-mates who were being interviewed.

At the Roosters and the NSW camp, he’s more….respectful.

Despite what this story may have been trying to argue up til now, Maloney says listening to criticism is important. So is filtering the brickbats that are constructive from those that are not.

“I think there’s a mix,” he says, when pressed.

“You don’t want to be a person who says ‘this is me, beat it. That’s my way of doing things’ but I think in general I’m an easy person to get along with.

“I think, everywhere you go in terms of different clubs, footballers, they’re all very similar. Whether you know them before you get there, it doesn’t take long before you form those bonds.”

Still a life lesson, then. Just not a cliché…

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

James Tamou: “I Thought I’d Be Sacked”

 

James Tamou

James Tamou

By STEVE MASCORD

JAMES Tamou says he thought he would be sacked by North Queensland and banished from rugby league in the wake of his high range drink driving charge.

Tamou, fined $20,000 and banned from Origin II selection after recording a blood alcohol reading of .197 on June 10, made his return in for the Cowboys in Sunday night’s 24-4 win over Cronulla. He  hopes to win back his Blues jersey with a strong showing against Canberra this weekend.

“It has been a very stressful time,” the 24-year-old tells League Week.

“Obviously when the incident happened with Blake Ferguson around the same time, there was talk about him not having his job at Canberra anymore.

“And I really thought that would happen to me, that I wouldn’t have a job anymore. It was scary thinking I would be out of a job, that I wouldn’t be allowed to come here and train with the boys and play anymore.”

Ferguson is currently facing charges of indecent assault after a night out on the eve of going into camp for NSW’s 26-6 Origin II defeat on June 26. While there was speculation that Canberra may opt to cancel his contract, the club has so far indicated it will stick by him.

Tamou’s financial penalty has been described by Australia captain Cameron Smith as being too harsh and his management is making representations behind the scenes for leniency.

“I have been trying to keep a low profile, just quietly coming to training and then slipping away,” he says.

“I’ve had a lot of support from people, a lot of text messages. The way I see it, it’s a learning curve. You live and you learn from your mistakes because I know for a fact I will never do anything like this ever again.

“I can’t wait to see myself in a couple of months and be able to look back on it from some distance.”

Despite suggestions, Tamou says he has been given no indication by NSW coach Laurie Daley that he will be in the Blues’ side for the deciding encounter with Queensland at ANZ Stadium on July 17.

“After a couple of weeks off, I just wanted to rip in for the Cowboys side and get a win,” he said.

Asked if he could bring something to the Blues side that was missing in game two, he responded:  “Mate hopefully.

“It was really tough sitting on the couch watching the second Origin game. It’s going to be much harder in the next game.

“You’d like to think you could do a job for them but you’ve got to get picked first.”
Tamou clocked up 200 metres with his 19 runs in 48 minutes on Sunday night. Coach Neil Henry said the former New Zealand Maori representative was short of condition after his enforced break but impressed with his attitude at training while suspended.

“He was huffing and puffing there over the speed of the game but he ran for good metres and I like what he did out there,” said Henry.

“He certainly added a bit to the team.

“He’s been great at training. He’s enthusiastic and he hasn’t missed a beat. No doubt he’s disappointed at missing a game for his club and also that Origin game.”

NB: Since this story appeared, Tamou was selected for Origin III

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

THE JOY OF SIX: Round 16

The Joy Of SixDUGAN UNCHAINED, PART 57

DESPITE the complications alcohol and social media have each caused him, NSW and St George Illawarra fullback Josh Dugan still seems to really like both. After reports emerged on Sunday that police were called after he was seen sitting in a boat parked outside a Sutherland Shire house and rowdily pretending to fish, Dugan posted on Instagram a meme (which now means a picture with a slogan superimposed on it) that read “A Lion Doesn’t  Concern Himself With The Opinions Of Sheep” following by the hashtag #anythingtosellastory . Within a few hours, the posting had more than 1000 likes. Most respondents, predictably, agreed with Dugan and criticised the story but some pleaded with him to, in the words of one follower, “pull your head in”.

RICKY’S LOST DANIELS NUMBER

RICKY Stuart deftly walked the line between getting his message across and not questioning anyone’s integrity with his post-match comments after the South Sydney loss. The Parramatta coach has said before that he doesn’t speak to referees boss Daniel Anderson and did not repeat his earlier contention that referees treat sides down the bottom of the table are treated differently than those at the top. That accusation carries an implication of prejudice and will make you $10,000 poorer in an instant. And while that was still the clear hint on Sunday, the majority of players in the NRL agree anyway. In the Rugby League Week Player Poll, when asked “do lesser clubs cop a rough deal from refs?”, 54 per cent of respondents answered ‘yes’. The NRL recently beefed up its rules to take in criticism which is considered excessive, even if no integrity is questioned. In the view of Joy Of Six, this is blatant censorship.

OUT WITH INNUENDO

THE speculation on Thursday and Friday that Sonny Bill Williams was about to pull out of the Sydney Roosters-Canterbury match because he did not want to put money in his former club’s coffers did no-one any favours. Sure, the fact that Williams played should have put the innuendo to bed but in truth a professional sports should not have to endure the whispering in the first place. In the NFL, all clubs have to maintain an injury list outlining who trained, who didn’t and why – which is available to the public. And betting on American football in most US states is illegal. Hiding or lying about injuries is punishable by Draconian fines. Rugby league may have scaled back its involvement with bookmakers but it arguably owes the public more transparency than the NFL because it still benefits from punting. When the Integrity Unit is done with misbehaving players, it should get to work on making clubs completely transparent over injuries and team changes.

DUGAN UNCHAINED, PART 58

ANOTHER job for the Integrity Unit, then. People still seem angry at Josh Dugan, even though he apparently did nothing wrong on his night out with Blake Ferguson and fishing on dry land is not – at this stage – a crime in NSW. It is central to their disquiet that Dugan did “the wrong thing” in Canberra and was “rewarded” with a St George Illawarra contract, and then “rewarded” again with NSW selection. That being the case, surely Jim Doyle’s Integrity Unit should assess each case where a player is sacked for disciplinary reasons and make a ruling on whether he should be able to join a rival club immediately, after a set period or at all. There’s no integrity in deliberately getting yourself sacked by not showing up to work, and then joining a rival employer after a few weeks’ purgatory. The NRL should be involved.

THE GAME THEY PLAY ON SEVEN

CHANNEL Seven’s signing of an agreement to cover the World Cup is tremendous news and follows a similar deal in the UK, where regular league broadcaster Sky Sports lost out to upstart Premier Sports in rights negotiations. While International Management Group, who negotiated both deals, are motivated by profit and not the welfare of the sport, rugby league has often lacked the confidence to share TV broadcasting rights around. International Rugby League is essential for the sport to go to the next level commercially and in the case of the broadcasters we already have, familiarity has bred contempt. You could argue it is in the interests of our domestic broadcasters for rugby league to remain a local, affordable commodity. They don’t care about international football and in that circumstance, we can either dance to their tune or go out and find someone who does care. Thankfully, we’ve done the latter. It could be a milestone decision.

WARRIOR TO … WARRIOR

THE negligible space afforded to Sam Tomkins’ likely signing with the New Zealand Warriors (from Wigan Warriors) in the Australian press is a sad indictment on the perceived strength of Super League. Tomkins is a once-in-a-generation English rugby league player whose evasive skills on kick returns have to be seen to be believed. While Australians decry the denuding of Super League, most English fans have never had illusions of grandeur about their competition. England coach Steve McNamara, speaking to Set Of Six in the South Sydney dressingrooms late on Sunday, spoke for many of them when he said fans would far rather see Tomkins stay in rugby league on the other side of the world than defect to rugby union at home. “It’s almost like the lesser of two evils, if you get my meaning,” McNamara said. Compare that to Australian fans, who view Super League and rugby union more or less equally as predators. Some of them would prefer a league player represent the Wallabies than Wigan, no doubt – a position that would be considered utter treason in the north of England.

Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Critics Of Origin I Stoush Missed The Point, Says Reynolds

Canterbury - Josh ReynoldsBy STEVE MASCORD
UNUSED NSW reserve Josh Reynolds says critics of last Wednesday’s Origin biffo are missing a big point – there are still plenty of punches in NRL games that go unpunished.
After sitting on the bench for the entire opening interstate encounter, the 24-year-old five-eighth returned to Canterbury on Saturday night and played a key role in the 36-26 win over North Queensland.
But he was a spectator like the rest of us when Paul Gallen took to Nate Myles and says the reaction across such a wide cross-section of the community has been an eye-opener.
“I don’t want to say too much on it but for me, what happens on the field stays on the field,” Reynolds tells RLW.
“There’ve been stinks every game, there’s a stink nearly every game in the NRL and people don’t talk about that.
“But obviously, just because it’s on the big stage, both sides have their opinions and everyone wants to get involved.”
Having been assured at fulltime by coach Laurie Daley that he would hold his spot for the return encounter on June 26, Reynolds says he would be happy to give hooker Robbie Farah – who suffered an eye injury during Origin I – a spell
“A hundred per cent – I think that’s why Laurie put me on the bench there, in case Robbie needed a breather,” he said.
“If Robbie’s not well or if he needs a bit of a rest during the game, I’ll be happy to go there and hopefully I can fill that role for the boys.”
Discussing the previous week, in which he beat South Sydney’s John Sutton the coveted NSW bench role, Reynold said: “It started off nerve-racking, obviously, going into camp not knowing if me or Sutto were going to get the gig.
“Then, it was awesome. The boys were really accepting of both of us. They welcomed us into the side and it felt like we had been there for a while.
“Then it turned into … I got the role and I was obviously over the moon and proud for me and my family and the obviously leading into the game, it was a great week, a week I’ll never forget. It was a great bunch of guys, Laurie was awesome.
“I’ve said it before, I didn’t get on the field but as long as we got the win, I was happy.”
Asked when it dawned on him he might not get on, Reynolds said: “Probably when they brought out the 10th (interchange) card and it wasn’t (me).
“I think if we had scored another try, he might have put me on. It was obviously a bit close and Queensland were on a bit of a roll and he wanted to keep the big guys in the middle to stop that.
“Laurie came up to me straight after the game and said to me I’ll be there, hopefully, game two. That was some reassurance.”
NB: Since this story appeared, the NRL has announced all punches will result in a sin bin dismissal.

THE WRAP: NRL Round 14

NRL logoBy STEVE MASCORD
“As scandals go, it certainly has the potential to be the worst in Origin’s tumultuous 33 years – and that’s saying something”
It’s the view of the doyen of State of Origin reporters in the wake of news NSW winger Blake Ferguson has been charged with indecent assault and kicked out of the team to play Queensland next Wednesday.
When reporters sat down to cover the Monday Night Football match between Brisbane and Wests Tigers, the extreme right seat in the Suncorp Stadium press box was left vacant as a mark of respect for veteran AAP reporter Wayne Heming.
After almost forty years covering rugby league, 62-year-old Heming was made redundant following Origin I in Sydney. He wrote the news agency’s preview of the very first State of Origin game in 1980 and began covering games in the iconic series the next year.
Heming, who will be employed next Wednesday by the Courier Mail for one night only at Origin II, has seen players, coaches, administrators and scandals come and go but says Ferguson’s arrest for indecent assault takes the cake.
“Ferguson going out on the drink with his former Canberra Raiders teammate Josh Dugan the night before both were to enter NSW Origin camp ranks as one of the dumbest things I’ve heard of,” Heming tells NRL.com
“Back when I first started covering rugby league in Sydney in the mid 1970s players got away with things because there were no mobile phones and they often had ‘contacts’ who fixed things up.
“But those days are well and truly gone and the intense scrutiny on players is such that they can’t step out of line or they get dobbed in.
“What on earth were they thinking?
“The last time they got out on the drink together it ended in Dugan being sacked by the Raiders and Ferguson being stood down for six weeks after they Instagramed a picture of themselves on a Canberra rooftop drinking.
“The fact the NRL has acted so swiftly against Ferguson would suggest they have seen some pretty damning evidence.
“In the current climate of change they could throw him to the lions to show they are serious about finally cracking down on unacceptable behaviour by players who tarnish rugby league’s image.”
Next Wednesday will be an emotional one for ‘Ticker’ Heming who has been probably the longest surviving fixture at Origin games since ’81.
His favourite memories include Wally Lewis announcing his retirement at halftime in the deciding game of the 1991 series. “Lewis, who’d only learned before the game his young daughter Jamie-Lee had been diagnosed a profoundly deaf, walked off Lang Park a winner for the last time,” he recalls.
His best game and gutsiest win was the Origin II 1989, when Queensland won in Sydney despite a slew of injuries.
Tries by Mark Coyne and Mark McGaw were his favourite and the Maroons’ 1995 success was the most remarkable series victory he saw.
“While I have to confess I was born in Manly – that’s in Queensland isn’t it – I have always loved the attacking never-say-die style with which Queensland play and the way they compete,” says Ticker.

read on

The A-List: TRENT MERRIN (St George Illawarra, Country & New South Wales)

NSW - Trent Merrin 2By STEVE MASCORD

IN journalism, we like epiphanies.

The process of truths slowly dawning on individuals makes for particularly dreary copy. On the other hand, the masses can never get enough of near death experiences, learning from the errors of others and getting a stern talking-to.

Morality tales have been around just about as long as humans have, after all.

So when your correspondent read in last week’s League Week that Trent Merrin was watching what he ate and had replaced fat with muscle, almost kilo for kilo, he figured this A-List assignment would be a simple one.

That is, meet the 23-year-old St George Illawarra forward in the foyer of the NSW team hotel, ask him what prompted him to make such major changes in his life, and go home with a good story.

But most people don’t arrive at big life decisions via bolts from the blue, unfortunately. As things turn out, the closest Merrin came was a double jolt from the Blues.

“The last two years haven’t been the best for me, getting cut from the last game on both occasions,” he says, after waving goodbye to a couple of team-mates who are heading off for lunch.

“It’s something that I held pretty close to me, it’s something that hurt a lot and it’s something that I want to turn into a positive and get back in here. It’s turned out great.”

All of which sounds wonderful – but NSW lost both those games so maybe it wasn’t such a great decision on the part of selector to drop Merrin for the deciders…

He nods. “. I guess … I’m not big on blaming others. The first think I looked at was myself. There could have been a few things I could have fixed up in myself. I’m not too sure what they were. But I decided to turn it into a positive and turn my game into what it is now.”

That is, the Shellharbour product couldn’t say for sure what got him the bum’s rush from the Blues. So he decided to work hard on EVERYTHING.

Not quite an epiphany then, but a kick in the backside.  The first thing that changed was diet.

“Matty Cooper helped me out a lot,” he says. “He’s pretty switched on with all that stuff. I just sponged everything he was telling me

“It’s not much, it’s just being more cautious of what I’m putting in and how much I’m putting in. And it’s (relating it) to the workload I’m doing too. You just have to weigh everything up.

“It helps not carrying that shit excess weight … especially out on the field when you’re out there for long minutes and you’ve got to push your body, to a certain extent, every game.

“Our front rowers, we always have a certain standard that we have to be at but I’m well below that (weight) now and it’s just something that I have to keep an eye on. It’s going pretty good so far.”

Merrin’s transformation has been such that instead of being a bit player as a prop, he is now capable of playing a whole game at lock. Yes, that’s quite a change.

There was more to it than food.  Twenty-three is quite young but most of us come to the realisation at some stage that what we’re doing is not going to last forever and we should make the most of it…

“I think I’ve matured a lot more to the game, doing things outside of footy that are more professional, getting my body ready … especially in my recovery periods,” he says.

“I think it was just me wanting to be the best player I can be and to achieve things like this. I just want to find it inside me. I know there’s more to deliver and I want to take it to a new (level) in my life. I just want to keep improving each year.

“Rugby league doesn’t last forever and while I’m here I might as well grab it with both hands and do the best that I can. You look at players like Cooper Cronk … he was saying that in his off-season he travels overseas to train at high (altitudes). Seeing and hearing about players like that trying to better themselves … . if you find the best player you can inside yourself, you prolong your career.”

Despite the Dragons’ slow start to the year, Merrin has had ‘Origin’ written all over him from the get-go. Reports of coach Steve Price being replaced by Craig Bellamy were distracting for the joint venture, he admits.

“When the talks were going on about new coaches and that, the ship was a bit rocked for a while because no-one knew what was going on,” says Trent, who reckoned senior Dragons ‘would have’ told management they wanted Price retained.

“All we wanted to do was concentrate on footy. As soon as the news came out, off of the boys were relaxed because we knew where the future of the club was going.”

Now the Dragons need to get on track and stay there. As for Origin tonight? Merrin has some interesting thoughts.

“The last two years, including my debut year, I was thinking about the Queensland team too much. I haven’t thought about them once. That’s the – I won’t say cockiness but – confidence. I’m confident in the team we’ve got here, the staff and everything about it.

“Me personally now, I need to not buy into the whole outside of (Origin). You can get caught up on it and it can drain you. The build-up to it is crazy. I’ve learned from that and I know it’s not going to help my game if I go crazy on the way to the game. You’ve got to stay composed and just go over the things I’ve got to do for the team and what I need to do.”

Just to indicate how deeply Trent Merrin has thought about the trajectory he wanted his career to take, he also adopted a personal media strategy. If things went his way this year, he was going to attract a lot more publicity and he wanted to be able to deal with it efficiently.

 

“Because I knew that I was going to try and better myself, there probably would be a lot more in the papers about me and on the shows and all that and I didn’t want to buy into that and start getting ahead of myself or change the way that I’m doing things,” he explains.

“I still go on the shows, there’s nothing wrong with having a chat. I can talk footy. I’ve got control of that. I can talk about whatever I want because it’s me and not someone talking about me. I try and stay out of the papers now because it’s someone else talking about me. That doesn’t really fit into what I’m doing, what I’m trying to achieve.

“I get told by my parents. Mum, Dad, everyone reads ‘em. I get told. But that’s as far is it goes for me. I’d rather have my mum call me and go blah, blah, blah, blah, tell me about what was said. I go ‘alright, sweet’ and that’s it.”

Instead, Trent now reads motivational books. “I just find these inspirational quotes out of them or sayings that I can put me on my path,” he says.

Asked to name a few of these tomes, he demures. “I couldn’t tell you the authors,” he smiles.

“….Harry Potter’s alright”.

Harry Potter Inspires Blues Enforcer. That’s even better than an epiphany.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Peering Into Pearce

Sydney Roosters - Mitchell PearceBy STEVE MASCORD

MITCHELL Pearce thought Sydney Roosters were a top eight side before the season started – and while we’ve all been getting excited, he still thinks they’re a top eight side.

But over the next three weeks, his mind might change. And, by some sort of twisted logic, he’ll play a big role in the events that will change his own mind.

“We’ve got Manly, followed by the Cowboys, followed by the Storm,” the 24-year-old says after mid-week session of Bikram yoga.

“I just think we’re a top eight side, don’t want to put too much press on us but … maybe we can say top four. After the next few weeks, we’ll know whether we can aim for that top four spot.

“It’s definitely an important period.”

No better time, in fact, to have a chat to Mitch than on the eve of a run which will determine his club’s premiership candidacy – and of an Origin series which will give us the best indication yet of what legacy he will leave as a footballer a decade from now.

Much has been written about the regeneration of the Sydney Roosters under new coach Trent Robinson. But Pearce is the personification of the rebirth.

Like his club, he was downtrodden and beaten for much of last season. He was said to be on his way out, at odds with the coach, unlikely to be retained by NSW as first choice number seven.

He featured more prominently in the gossip pages than the sports pages.

Maybe it wasn’t fate. Maybe it was Nick Politis. But the intervention of something or someone set off a domino effect and every single little one of the blighters fell in Mitchell Pearce’s favour.

Coach Brian Smith departed and was replaced by former prop Trent Robinson. The club re-signed the son of NRL Commissioner Wayne Pearce to a four-year contract.

And, as it to clean up a loose end, Blues coach Laurie Daley came out and declared it didn’t matter what any other halfback did, Pearce was his first choice for Origin I on June 5.

According to Robinson, the good signs for Pearce were obvious one day during the summer when he grabbed a lift with his young playmaker. The car was tidy – a shock for Robinson after a year in the south of France.

Pearce was one of those people who focused on what he HAD to do and dismissed the periphery. While Robinson was chomping on croissants, Mitchell Pearce had – literally – got his shit together.

So, was Pearce gone if Smith had stayed? “It said that in a few stories, a few journos put their own spin on it, that I was going to leave,” he said.

“I didn’t comment. I don’t think you’ll find I said much publically at all. I never said I was leaving the Roosters.”

Ok, that’s fine. But now it’s all in the past, can you comment? Can you tell us what really happened?

“No, look, never once was I thinking about doing that,” he says. “There were some good times with Smithy but then towards the end, the whole team wasn’t going so well.

“I wasn’t the only one.

“It was disappointing but Smithy helped me a lot with my career, I’ve learned from all my coaches. I’m grateful to him.

“I never wanted to leave.”

Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that Robinson’s arrival has been a positive for Pearce. Cliches like everyone “buying in” to what the understated former Parramatta Eel and Wests Tiger don’t really say much, though. Buying into what, exactly?

“He talks about trademarks,” Pearce explains. “You look at Manly and Melbourne, they have trademarks – things they do in every game, hard work, that comes before they do anything fancy.

“Things like controlling the ruck. Big wingers, doing the hard work and the flashy stuff off the back of it. They are known for those things and they are in their culture. We’re not there yet be we’re working towards it.”

It’s that psychologically clever focus on honest toil from Robinson that has allowed him to keep the tent door on the Sonny Bill Williams circus closed and introduce some reliability and predictability into the football of Michael Jennings.

The success stories are many. Sam Moa has come back from England a near-superstar. It’s because, like Melbourne, the Sydney Roosters are working hard on honing a craft that in turn puts them in position to win football games.

Pearce, more than most, could easily argue that Melbourne operating in something of a vacuum in comparison to a club like the Roosters is a big factor. Between Moore Park and Bondi, there are an untold number of camera phones that can bring a Sydney Rooster undone.

“Yes, that’s true, but still look at the players they have,” he argues. “It’s about the coach they have. It’s the calibre of players – Cronk, Slater, Smith – and the culture they’ve built.

“That’s what we want to do. We know it will take a while but we’d love to see something similar here.”

Which brings us to the Roosters’ culture – or at least what it’s perceived to be. At the start of the season, Robinson plonked his men down in a room and asked them what the opposition thought of them. If a player was FROM and opposition team, he challenged them: ‘what do YOU think of us?”

“There were some pretty strong things said,” Pearce recalls. “There was the party image, I don’t think people thought of us as an 80 minute team.

“And we spoke about what our goals were, to change those impressions. It wasn’t fully based on trying to impress people, just about changing the way people think about you because those perceptions could be based on something.

“I think we’ve been playing for 80 minutes this year. We might be earning some respect.”

When I ask Pearce if group meetings and “buying in” to changing perceptions are more effective that curfews and Kings Cross bans, he steers the conversation away, saying all clubs have group meetings and it’s the results of such confabs that matter.

And so to Origin.

Pearce has played nine times in sky blue, scored a try, never won a series. At least if Willie Mason is involved in this year’s series, Daley will have someone who remembers what it’s like to beat Queensland.

Daley’s endorsement was unexpected, he says. “I didn’t know he was going to say that until I saw it in the paper but I saw him later and thanked him.” What was Daley’s motive in annointing him the first man picked? Was it intended as a confidence booster for someone who needed one?

“I can’t speak for that, I just feel privileged that he has asked me to fill that role. You’ll have to ask him. It’s a nice feeling that the coach wants you as his half.”

Criticism, says Pearce, “is part of playing for NSW and until we win a series, it’s not going to change

“I’ll be honest, I always find it a long, drawn-out process, the lead-up to Origin. You probably feel it more as NSW half

“Everyone talks about it, it’s a great spectacle. Hopefully I can get out there this year and prove a few people wrong.”

SIDEBAR

HE didn’t play in it, is in the NSW team anyway, but Mitchell Pearce believes City-Country should be retained.

“I missed it because of a calf injury – I would love to have played, I like playing in those games,” he says.

“Adam Reynolds, he’s a really good halfback and he had a great game for City, a good second half. I don’t mind saying he’s got the best kicking game in the comp.

“Good on him. I would have played if I could.”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

Ferguson Doesn’t Rue Lost Time

Canberra - Blake FergusonBy STEVE MASCORD
HE’S been suspended and sidelined by injury but Canberra centre Blake Ferguson doesn’t believe he’s given his rivals for a NSW berth any head start.
Ferguson has dramatically reversed his fortunes since being suspended on March 12 for drinking with Josh Dugan instead of training. He returned from a fractured cheekbone in round seven and scored all but eight of Canberra’s points in their 24-20 upset win over Melbourne on Saturday.
“I don’t think I have,” Ferguson said when asked if he had left his run for Origin selection somewhat late..
“There’s some good players out there for NSW this year. It would be good to get a run but in staying that I’ve still got to earn my stripes and I’ve still got to play some consistent footy.
“In the back of your mind it is (there) but I think the main thing is playing good for the boys.”
A fractured cheekbone kept Ferguson out of City-Country this year. “I played last year and thought I could hold my head up high,” he said.
“I thought I would have been a genuine contender. I’d love to just play some good footy with the Raiders.”
Ferguson provided the understatement of the year when he said his 2013 had been “up and down”
“I’ve still got to work on a few things,” he said. “Everyone sees the tries but I see other things in my game that I need to fix up and I will work on those.
“I made a few errors.”
Raiders captain and former NSW five-eighth Terry Campese believes Ferguson would shine in sky blue.
“The way he defended, he was very strong and in attack he was palming them off as he scored a couple of tries as well,” said Campese.
“You could tell during the week he wanted to get out there and have a big game. He prepared the best he has all year.”
Coach David Furner said the secret for Ferguson was to “stay grounded”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK