IN HIND­SIGHT

Inside Sport - - Con­tents - – James Smith

I

s there a more ro­man­tic, fairy taleesque end­ing to a rugby league player’s ca­reer than Royce Sim­mons’s exit? Will there ever be?

An un­fash­ion­able but loyal and re­li­able work­horse over the course of his 12-sea­sons of ser­vice be­tween 1980-91, the Pen­rith Pan­thers’ veteran hooker had crossed for just 13 tries in 237 first grade ap­pear­ances. But in his last-ever premier­ship game, the 1991 Win­field Cup Grand Fi­nal against the Can­berra Raiders, he crossed for two. One was a bul­lock­ing ef­fort from firstre­ceiver, knock­ing over The Brick With Eyes, prop Glenn Lazarus, on the way to the try­line. For the other, he stormed onto an off­load from fire­brand for­ward Mark

Geyer, send­ing the peo­ple of Pen­rith into delir­ium.

As this year’s NRL big dance looms, sit back and take in the wis­dom of a true rugby league grand fi­nal hero, who is still pay­ing for his very costly words on the pre­sen­ta­tion podium 27 years later ... What are you up to these days, Royce? Are you still con­nected to the game and more im­por­tantly, to your beloved Pen­rith Pan­thers?

I work for Pan­thers in the com­mer­cial area. I run a net­work­ing club in­volv­ing 60 Pen­rith busi­nesses. We watch Pen­rith home games and run other spon­sor events. It might be go­ing to Queen­stown for an ad­ven­ture week­end, or go­ing to the Cox Plate to watch Winx run, maybe to the Aus­tralian Open ten­nis ... Then we might have a game of golf or lawn bowls with the first grade play­ers. What we find from it all is that peo­ple get to know each other; they be­come good friends and they do a lot of busi­ness with each other. It suits me right down to the ground. It’s a bit dam­ag­ing some­times; you have a few late nights, but over­all I re­ally en­joy it.

How did the rugby league jour­ney start for you way back in the day?

My first footy team was ac­tu­ally in rugby union. I lived in a liƒle place called Canowin­dra, which was out in Group 11 league ter­ri­tory. At that stage they had a first grade side, sec­ond grade, un­der-18s, but no ju­nior rugby league. But they did have ju­nior rugby union. It was quite strange. So I started to play foot­ball at Canowin­dra in rugby union and played right through till I was 16. In the mid­dle of all of that, my dad was a butcher. He bought a butcher shop in a liƒle town called Gooloogong, which was only about half an hour’s drive away. So we moved out there; that's where I fin­ished my pri­mary school. So to re­ally get to play rugby league, I went to Cowra, where I went to high school.

Who were your rugby league he­roes grow­ing up?

From a real young age I’d run around pre­tend­ing I was Graeme Lang­lands. I fol­lowed St Ge­orge; Billy Smith, etc. Barry Beath came from Gooloogong. He played for St Ge­orge for years, back when they had some of their real good sides. Ian Walsh played just across the way at Eu­gowra. So I had St Ge­orge im­printed into my head. I came down and tri­alled for them in, it must have been 1978. I didn’t make it. Then I came down again and tri­alled with South Syd­ney in ’79. I think my first trial with them was a fi•h grade game. I wasn’t re­ally that sure that I’d make it there, ei­ther.

Had you thought of Pen­rith as an op­tion be­fore their coach Len Stacker came along and reached out to you?

Oh look, I knew liƒle of Pen­rith at the time. As I said, I fol­lowed St Ge­orge. But when I came out here and had a trial, I de­cided to stay here; it suited me. At the time, Pen­rith was vir­tu­ally a big town, and it was quiet ... a lot qui­eter than it is now. So for a boy from Gooloogong, a liƒle town

“You get there and some­times it’s: wow, we made the grand fi­nal. So you might re­lax just that lit­tle bit. And that’s all you need to get beaten.”

of 150 peo­ple, it prob­a­bly suited me be er to be here. I got a job out at Pen­rith Golf Club. I was a green­keeper by trade, so I ended up out at the lo­cal club. Be­ing out on the course, I quickly got to know a lot of Pen­rith peo­ple.

In be­tween the 1990 and ’91 grand fi­nals, the Pan­thers al­tered their colours from brown and white to that liquor­ishall­sorts de­sign. Did that change the spirit or the cul­ture of the club much?

Per­son­ally, I don’t think it makes any dif­fer­ence what­so­ever what colour jumper you’re wear­ing; I’m talk­ing play­ing-wise. But what it did do was ... I think our jumper was one of the worst-sell­ing jumpers in the com­pe­ti­tion. Aƒer we changed it, it went straight to the top. So ob­vi­ously our brand went out to a bit big­ger au­di­ence. All of a sud­den, peo­ple wanted to be a part of the big­gest-sell­ing jumper, spon­sors wanted to be a part of it. I’m a big one for tra­di­tion; I like to stick to what­ever you’ve al­ways done. And at the time I thought: oh, we prob­a­bly shouldn’t be chang­ing our colours. But the com­mer­cial side of it was great in the end. Ac­cord­ing to that old rugby league trope, you have to lose a grand fi­nal to win one. But los­ing one re­ally ripped the heart and guts out of the en­tire Pen­rith district in 1990, didn’t it?

I re­mem­ber in the early days at Pen­rith, we didn’t win too many games. To be fair, we gen­er­ally tried pre y hard each week, but we had to rely on the sides not play­ing well to win some games. We weren’t spend­ing the money that other clubs were spend­ing. We had some big blokes who played hard, but we prob­a­bly lacked some gen­uine class and in par­tic­u­lar, speed. In 1990, I thought I’d be pre­pared for what hap­pened, from go­ing through all those 

other set­backs. But nah, I wasn’t. It knocked the socks off me. I was de­stroyed a er it. Ob­vi­ously ev­ery­one was. I re­mem­ber just si ing out there on the field and ev­ery­thing was numb. You'd be talk­ing to a few of the other boys and look up and you saw the other blokes li ing the Win­field Cup above their head and do­ing the vic­tory lap. You have to sit there and watch it all. It’s a part of learn­ing. It was a pre y tough few hours and few days ... 12 months, re­ally, un­til we got an­other op­por­tu­nity to re­verse the roles.

We’re ob­vi­ously steer­ing this chat to­wards your grand exit from the game against those ras­cals, the Can­berra Raiders, in 1991, but it all could’ve ended very dif­fer­ently for you, hey?

That last year was a tough year for me. I did my an­kle re­ally early in the sea­son. I was out for weeks, then I came back, played a game, did it again and was out for weeks again. I think I only played 11 first grade games in 1991. I re­mem­ber com­ing back, it was our last home game of the sea­son, so it was my last game at Pen­rith Park ever. I was fin­ish­ing up that year. The first grade side was go­ing re­ally well, and I’d missed long, long pe­ri­ods with in­jury. I’d come back and played three or four re­serve grade games. One night at train­ing, Gus came into the sheds and said, “Righto, it’s our last game at Pen­rith Park, and this is the side ... and Royce will be lead­ing us out.” It wasn’t as cap­tain, but be­cause it was my last game there. We beat Bal­main pre y easy. I got to kick a goal from in front and all that sort’ve stuff. I even­tu­ally found out that be­fore Gus had

“You get the odd bloke turn­ing up who’ll say, 'I haven’t had a beer with you yet.' But he’s prob­a­bly fib­bin.”

told me he’d be pick­ing me for that last game, he had ac­tu­ally told the whole side that I’d be play­ing. He also said to them “and he’ll be play­ing ev­ery other game right through to the grand fi­nal as well”. So that was a good con­fi­dence-booster: to get there and end up play­ing in a grand fi­nal, when a few weeks ear­lier I thought I might be there as a to­ken mem­ber of the squad.

Did the Pan­thers as a team change all that much from how you did things in 1990 com­pared to 1991? Or were you just a re­ally good team who hap­pened to go that one step fur­ther the fol­low­ing year?

Quite a few things hap­pened dif­fer­ently that next year. You get there and some­times it’s: wow, we made the grand fi­nal, so you might re­lax just that li le bit ... and that’s all you need to get beaten. The other team, they’d been there, they’d won be­fore, they knew what to ex­pect from it. There’s that li le learn­ing curve. I think in 1990, Ricky Stu­art had the ball on a string: ev­ery time he kicked it, it would bounce for the side­line, would bounce here, there. Then the fol­low­ing year, Greg Alexan­der had the ball on a string. It went ev­ery­where he wanted it to go and we kept ge ing re­peat sets. Peo­ple say to me: you were un­lucky not to win the Clive Churchill Medal – I get that said to me all the time. Bradley Clyde, who won it, played great in a beaten side. But if you ask me who should’ve won, it would be Greg Alexan­der. Greg was fan­tas­tic that day. He steered us all around, kept bark­ing or­ders at us to stay pa­tient, keep grind­ing, all that stuff. I thought he was out­stand­ing that day.

You’d only scored a hand­ful of tries across 12 sea­sons of first grade. What made you think you could bar­rel over Glenn Lazarus and score a try in a grand fi­nal?

We were muck­ing around with the ball too much. We passed it out a few times, and it came back and I got it. I just thought: bloody hell, let’s just se le it down. I thought, just run hard and get as far as you can, and se le things down. I didn’t want us push­ing a pass and all of a sud­den we’ve turned it over. So I just vir­tu­ally stuck my head down to run as hard as I could and ended up ge ing over the line. Glenn Lazarus ran over a lot of blokes in his ca­reer. What a great player he was. I think I was lucky enough to hit him on his ster­num. I don’t think his ster­num was in too good a shape. I think he was car­ry­ing a few bumps and bruises. My

boo ead hit him right in the mid­dle of his ster­num. That’s what helped.

And so onto that sec­ond try, where you al­most jumped over team-mate Mark Geyer’s head in cel­e­bra­tion as you vir­tu­ally sealed the club its maiden premier­ship. Was that your ex­pe­ri­ence and footy in­stinct at play to put you in po­si­tion for MG’s off­load?

You could say it was about in­stinct ... They went for the short grub­ber – they had to be­cause they needed to get the ball back to give them­selves an op­por­tu­nity. I could see Mark Geyer over on that side of the field, and I could see about five of their blokes. Scoy Gale was aim­ing to land the ball right on the ten me­tre line. I could see four or five of them charg­ing onto the ball, and I could see MG charg­ing into THEM. My in­stinct was to get over there and make a tackle! It was four or five on one, so the like­li­hood of them geing the ball is very high. Mark is run­ning in quick and he’s go­ing to keep go­ing, so I’ve got to make a tackle, and a good tackle, be­cause we don’t want them of­fload­ing the ball or any­thing. So I was go­ing in there to make a tackle. I cer­tainly wasn’t go­ing into that sit­u­a­tion to score a try.

On the podium aer­wards, you told the peo­ple of Pen­rith you were look­ing for­ward to hav­ing a beer with ev­ery one of them. Did you get there in the end?

I’ve gone close. I’ve made sure I’ve got 99.9 per­cent of them. You get the odd bloke turn­ing up who’ll say, “I haven’t had a beer with you yet, Royce." But he’s prob­a­bly just fib­bin ...

The Tim Sheen­scoached Can­berra Raiders (be­low) en­joyed great times across the early '90s. In­deed, Ricky Stu­art (above right) broke the Pan­thers' hearts with a lethal kick­ing game in the 1990 de­cider.  ­€‚ƒ „ƒ…† But Pen­rith's Greg Alexan­der had the ball on a string in the 1991 grand fi­nal.

For Pan­ther for­wards Paul Clarke (left) and Barry Walker, the score­board said it all on grand fi­nal day.

Pan­thers stal­warts John Cartwright and Brad Iz­zard em­brace coach Gus Gould.   Thirsty work for big MG. … Royce em­braces the Win­field Cup.

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