“All hell broke loose. I got sent off and showered in beer on my way up the tunnel”
Grand final hero. State of Origin villain. It was one hell of a ride for this Penny Panther
You were almost lost to footy after playing with Penrith under-20s, weren’t you?
I used to be a centre, believe it or not – a pretty slow one, mind you – and yeah, I played the first year of 20s and Roycey [Simmons] spoke to me and said he wanted me to play back row the next year. So I put on a fair bit of weight and when I came back my legs weren’t handling it, I was getting stress fractures and shin splints. So I ended up playing out the season with Emu Plains in A-grade and yeah, I’d pretty much given up on [the NRL dream] at that point.
So how did you end up making your debut in 2002?
I went to an open trial with Manly at Brookie Oval – and no good. And I was so close to giving up, but my brother got into me and said, “What have you got to lose? Give Penrith a ring, see if you can get a trial”, and by that time Roycey had moved on and John Lang had come in. So I rang [recruitment manager] Jim Jones and he asked Langy and they said I could try out for the pre-season. So there were about four of us that he took on to trial through the summer. I never would’ve thought I’d be making my debut against Melbourne in Melbourne [in round 23] that year. We got smashed but it was still a great memory. My family was there, and it was just a great week.
What do you recall most about the dream season of 2003?
I was still working as a storeman in a factory till halfway through that year. I played the first half of the year and then Richo [Penrith CEO Shane Richardson] said, “Do you want go full-time?” And mate, I was just stoked with that – and then to go on the way we did, and win it, and then go on a Kangaroo tour at the end of the year . . . it’s still hard to believe it unfolded the way it did.
When did you start to think something special was brewing?
The third game that year was a turning point for us. We’d lost our first two games, including getting pumped by Melbourne, and we were down at half-time against the Roosters, and they were the guns, and big Joel [Clinton] wears his heart on his sleeve and he got a bit emotional and we came back and won. We went on to win eight of the next nine and set up the season. Leading into the grand final, it was all new to us and there was no fear. I guess that’s what helped us – everyone was so relaxed because no-one gave us a chance. I remember watching the coverage later and they showed vision from our sheds before the match and we were all laughing and smiling, but in the Roosters’ sheds it was the opposite.
You only ever played for Penrith in the NRL. Why was that?
I always had special memories out there. I grew up playing grand finals at Penrith Park . . . I remember in under-sevens playing at Penrith Park at half-time of first grade – Penrith was playing Parramatta – and I think it was still when they were building the eastern grandstand. I’ll never forget the atmosphere of the massive crowd for the local derby. So to be out there playing for the team that I grew up watching on the hill – for a boy from Penrith it’s a dream come true. So I never wanted to come off-contract and test the water, I always signed before my time was up. I never wanted to go anywhere else, I loved it there.
You played with and against Brad Fittler, a fellow Cambridge Park junior.
I played against him a number of times, including that  grand final and I was lucky enough to play with him [for NSW]. It was unreal, very surreal, he’s a legend of the game and a legend of Penrith and we were from the same junior club. I remember watching the grand finals in ’90 and ’91, so it was hard to believe I was actually on the same field as him. After games he was always good, just talking about “Camo” boys and stuff like that. He’s a champion human and a he was a champion player.
How did you find out about your selection for Australia?
It came as a shock. We were all on the bus going to Mad Monday and I think five of us got picked. They called our names over the radio and I thought I was hearing things. The bus just went crazy, we couldn’t believe it. It was just the icing on the cake to an incredible year. We went into camp a week later, so we’d been celebrating the grand final all week. We got into camp on the Sunday and had to back up for a bonding session that night. Then we rolled in to Allianz Stadium on Monday morning and Billy Johnstone gave us a flogging. I’ve never felt so bad at training – a few of us were spewing, it certainly cleaned our systems out.
In 2009 you became the first Blue to be sent off in State of Origin. What happened in that infamous brawl?
I was on the other side and all I’d seen was the back of Pricey [Steve Price] throwing punches, so I just ran in to grab him and pull him away but as I got there Whitey [Brett White] got him on the chin and I ended up falling on him, which probably didn’t look that good. I was just in there to get him away, you know, and then all hell broke loose. I got sent off and showered in beer on my way up the tunnel. We went out for beers afterwards at the Normanby in Brisbane and I had my hat down, didn’t want to draw attention to myself [laughs]. Funnily enough, just the other day one of my mates sent me a picture message, and my send-off was a trivia question in the crossword section of the newspaper . . . I guess I’ve made it now [laughs].
Your move to Warrington in England paid off when you won the Challenge Cup in your first year. Is doing that all it’s cracked up to be?
The Challenge Cup was an amazing experience. It’s something we don’t really have here and it’s held in very high esteem over there. Some of the loyal fans over there love the Cup more than they love the Super League grand final. Wembley is such an iconic place. I remember getting up early and watching Australia play at Wembley, so to play there in front of a full house and win the Challenge Cup is something I’ll always cherish.
Your captain there was an old rival Adrian Morley. How’d that go?
He’s a great bloke and part of the reason I chose Warrington . . . We actually came out on a [pre-season] camp to Coogee and he was my room-mate, so every chance I had I’d have my shirt off, strutting around, showing off my Panthers premiership tattoo. He said he was going to cut it off in my sleep.
The last two years you’ve been with the Thirroul Butchers in the Illawarra comp. How’d that come about?
A mate from Penrith, Damian Blanch, was playing down here and he said they could help me out with a job. [Premiershipwinning team-mate] Luke Swain was here as well as captain-coach and we had a great time. It was just pure football, no-one was getting paid that much, it was all about the camaraderie . . . I still live down here, I have a job down at Port Kembla on the wharves and do a bit of personal training on the side, and I’m looking to do a bit of coaching with the club next year as well.