TO DELL AND BACK
WENDELL Sailor’s football journey is one of a kind. The powerhouse winger was a drawcard at the Broncos before switching to rugby union where he played 37 Tests for the Wallabies. He was suspended for two years due to a positive test to cocaine but return
You played both rugby codes internationally – which was your favourite? I enjoyed NRL and going to the likes of Penrith and Canberra but when I joined rugby I also really enjoyed going to places like Waikato and even South Africa. Just different. In my first Super Rugby game in South Africa I was pumped being the big new signing and I got the program and I was down as “Wendell Taylor”. I was a three-time rugby league premiership player but it did not mean anything. What did the boys make of it? I remember sitting around with guys like Damian Mednis and saying “I am the big signing yet they cannot even get my name right’’. Not good for the ego. What’s wrong with Australian rugby? Good question. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. But we have accepted a culture of coming close. In the last Test against New Zealand everybody has said how well we did coming close and I think the players settle for that. In the last World Cup we made the final against the All Blacks and I think we were happy with that. So was it different in your era? We always felt we could win because we had guys like George Smith, Steve Larkham and George Gregan. We have lost that leadership a bit. Yes. I love Wayne. He has been a big part of my life. Also (Bennett’s former wife) Trish and (Bennett’s son) Justin. I catch up with them as well when I go back to Brisbane. Some people have been off Wayne lately. Not me. Before she died his mother sent me a letter when I retired saying Wayne had a special place for me. I think that’s why I never stuffed things up on his watch. So what did Wayne teach you? There is a place called City Rowers we used to frequent. We were there one day after a grand final win with our shirts off in the middle of the day and I said to Wayne he must get an ego out of seeing all these country kids he had taken on to be top footballers and he said “the success of my job depends on what we become when we give away football”. It probably did not hit home with me until my (two-year drug) suspension (for a positive test to cocaine). What did he say? Well he said it would be the toughest two years of my life. He was worried it was about a bit like what happened to Peter Jackson (who committed suicide). He felt that without fame and fortune and without the chance to prove myself, I was not going to be like Shane Warne and Ben Cousins who, whenever they got into trouble, could just get out there and play their sport and that was their safe haven. So he feared you could commit suicide? Yes – 100 per cent – because I had always wanted to be the centre of attention. If you had your career again, would you do anything differently? Yes, I would. I would still go to rugby but I would give rugby the respect it deserved. In 2005 when I got into trouble in South Africa (with a disagreement with a hotel patron) and then the drug ban, I wanted the fame and fortune without doing the hard stuff. I should have respected people I was with more. It’s the ripple effect that hurts. It’s people like your mum, wife and kids. Until it was all gone, I did not realise what an important position I was in. How tough were those two years? The first year was tough because I was starting to play my best rugby. I don’t feel like rugby let me down. I felt like I let rugby down. Your son Tristan is a NSW under20s player … could he be better than his old man? Yes, potentially he is different. Lote Tuqiri coached him and said to him “your dad couldn’t pass or kick’’ and guys like Joey Johns and Freddy Fittler say he’s got me covered already. You want your kids to be better but I reckon the sons get it tougher because they have extra pressure. Look at Mitchell Pearce. But I was at the Dragons sheds the other day with my wife and I heard someone say there’s Tristan Sailor’s dad. That was great. You played a lot with Allan Langer. What mark did he leave on you? I get disappointed in our game because we talk a lot about Johnathan Thurston, Darren Lockyer, Cam Smith and Mal Meninga but we forget about Alfie because he is such a larrikin. There should be a statue of Alfie at Lang Park. In my time at the Broncos he was the most important player. His presence on and off the field was very powerful. If I dropped a cross kick from him he would never say anything. He would just look at me as if to say “mate, I will put them there … you just need to catch them”. Even running the water now he still has an aura. How did he handle you when he was captain? When I had a really good game he would never go over the top with me and say “you killed it’’ because he did not want my ego to get out of control. He would just say “mate, you went all right tonight’’. And how would he wind you up? He wound me up all the time. I started golf late and was pretty ordinary so he would make a point of making a big introduction of me on the tee “here he is … Thursday Island champion’’. I would put the ball in the trees and he would say “see, he’s just a natural’’. Do you feel rugby has become too stodgy for its own good? I worry about the product. There was such an emphasis on Super Rugby and the Wallabies without worrying about grassroots rugby. There is too much importance on school rugby. They are big superstars but sometimes between schools and Super Rugby, there is a bit of a gap there. Who was the best matchwinner you played with in all codes? Steve Larkham was the man in rugby but George Smith as a flanker game-in, game-out was the best and most important player. People talk about Richie McCaw but George was great. Guys like him were born winners.
CHIP OFF THE BLOCK: Wendell Sailor with son Tristan; the rugby program with Wendell Taylor listed; and (below, from left) Sailor with coach Wayne Bennett, with Broncos Allan Langer and Kevin Walters and in Wallabies colours.
You had an interesting relationship with Wayne Bennett. Are you still close?