BALLS IN THE AIR
WITH THE FOOTY SEASON FINALLY UPON US, WE CATCH UP WITH ONE OF OUR FAVOURITE RUGBY LEAGUE SONS ... BECAUSE IT’S HARD TO CATCH HIM AGAIN UNTIL OCTOBER
For a bloke, Ben Ikin is pretty good at multi-tasking. The former rugby league identity has just played his first pro golf tournament and he’s talking footy, family and life while picking up his son from cricket training.
Things are about to get even more hectic for Ikin with the 2019 NRL season kicking off. His NRL 360 issues and analysis program, co-hosted with league journalist Paul Kent, is back three nights a week on the Foxsports 24/7 rugby league channel.
While it’s exciting times for footy tragics, it also puts the Brisbane-based Ikin back on the travel treadmill.
But Ikin doesn’t specialise in analysis for nothing.
His routine is as meticulous as his preparation for the season ahead. His pre-season spreadsheets were done up and rejigged weeks ago and he can pretty much tell you where he’ll be every day between now and the first weekend in October.
“I drop the boys off at school on Monday morning and I catch the same flight down to Sydney every week,” he says.
“I stay at the same hotel across the road from the Foxsports studios. I eat there and at the same North Sydney cafe.
“The family that runs it knows me pretty well by now. They even invite me to their family events. When I finish the last show, I catch the same flight back on a Wednesday
night.” Ben Ikin, at 42, is that sort of bloke. He likes to be organised and have his homework done.
“I’m not a natural performer for live television,” he says. “I have to be well prepared. I’ve got the ex-player filter and I’ve got an inquiring mind. I like to understand things. That’s the way I come at it.”
They’re not traits normally associated with the ex-player stereotype but Ikin has always played his own game.
He grew up on the Gold Coast, the oldest of three boys who went on to achieve in their own fields. Anthony is a former world aerobics champion and a noted dancer and choreographer. Sean is a talented singer now pursuing his love of jazz.
Ben didn’t play rugby league in his early days, starting in AFL before switching to hockey. He found rugby league by default when, in his last year of primary school at Currumbin State School, they introduced inter-school sport. The choices were rugby league or netball.
He took to the game like the proverbial duck to water and joined his local footy club. By the time he finished high school, he was a standout talent but, still only 16, was too young to be considered for the Queensland or Australian schoolboy sides, the hunting ground for league recruitment scouts.
Despite being no slouch in the academic department – his OP score earned him entry to study environmental science at university – he decided to repeat Year 12 just to concentrate on footy, to see if he really had what it took to play at professional level.
The next year he made the Australian
Schoolboys side and fielded a couple of offers from top-level clubs before signing with the Gold Coast Chargers for the 1995 season.
It might have been a longer road to the top were it not for the code’s Super League fracture that discounted most of the game’s stars from playing State of Origin football that year.
In his first season, at 18, Ikin was named in a cobbled together Queensland side. He remains the youngest player ever to have played Origin football.
His entry to the Maroons camp has become part of rugby league folklore. As the story goes, he turned up at the team hotel where he joined rookie Queensland coach Paul “Fatty” Vautin and another player in the lift.
When Ikin got out on their floor, Vautin thought he was a kid hunting autographs and suggested he wait downstairs. Ikin had to explain who he was.
And it is, of course, the stuff of footy legend that Queensland’s ’95 team of nobodies, the Nevilles as they became known, went on to win the series 3-0 against all odds.
“I cherish those memories,” Ikin says. “They get rehashed every year around
Origin time. After all these years, out of that series, you’d never have picked which two blokes would go on to be mates.
“There’s probably a bit of an age gap but Fatty and I are great mates. We speak all the time.
“It was a pretty special thing that year.
Ever since I was a kid, every part of me every year wanted to play rugby league for the Maroons.
“That was one of the real highlights for me, not of my career, of my life.”
Ikin went on to play for the North Sydney Bears in 1996 and became a regular for the Maroons from 1997.
He wore the Australian jersey, named as a reserve in two Test matches against New Zealand in 1998, but his career was plagued by injury, including a broken jaw and three knee reconstructions.
After a couple of seasons of contract wrangling, he was finally released to play with the Brisbane Broncos in 2000. They won the premiership that year and Ikin met his future wife, the boss’s daughter Beth, whose father is enigmatic veteran coach Wayne Bennett.
The back end of his career was cruelled by cycles of serious injury and gritty returns. He continued to play Origin football but eventually called time on his playing days at the end of the 2004 season, aged 27.
It’s fitting Ikin is still called on to speak about overcoming adversity.
“You certainly learn that life’s not linear,” he says. “There’s good and bad and you’ve just got to be able to adapt to both and take both in your stride.
“I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it way back when I was playing but for some reason inside me, when the setbacks struck, I started to get excitement about life after rugby league.”
Ikin was no ex-player hanging around for a media gig but, articulate and passionate about the game, he began being asked to commentate as a sideline.
He was eventually offered a prized contract with Channel 9, cynics suggesting it may have been a Nine ploy to secure an in with Ikin’s notoriously media-shy father-in-law, but Ikin characteristically took the opportunity with both hands and proved a capable media performer.
It was also a mark of his character when he walked away from his promising broadcast career in 2009 as Nine’s A Current Affair was preparing to air an “expose” about the financial collapse of his father’s removal and storage business.
It was just hours before the network’s flagship State of Origin coverage.
“I’ve never really talked too much about that,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to be righteous. It was just the right thing for me to do to show support for my parents. It wasn’t a statement but it was important for me.”
Ikin and Beth have two girls and two boys, aged from 16–11. He says they’re each into their own things that they enjoy, are all committed students and are “really easy to parent”.
They’re also one of the reasons Ikin won’t be turning his sporting prowess to professional golf any time soon.
Always handy on the greens, Ikin was invited to play in last month’s Queensland PGA championship in Toowoomba after spending the NRL off-season whittling his handicap from 6 to 1.7.
He knew he’d be off the pace of the pros but nothing prepared him for the mental toughness required for professional golf.
“It was magnificent and brutal,” he says of his last-placed 26-over after two rounds. “But I thoroughly enjoyed it.
“It’s a testament to the guys who do it for a living but I reckon I’ll be supporting next year’s tournament from the sidelines.”
It will be from the sidelines too that Ikin will micro-analyse the footy season ahead.
According to his spreadsheets – he rejigs them as events unfold – he tips the Roosters, Cowboys, Dragons and Storm for the top four, followed in no particular order by the Broncos, Rabbitohs, Panthers and Newcastle.
Ikin will sit on the Queensland Rugby League board again this year and with so much time away from home, he’ll get stuck into his reading. Ikin likes a good book, swinging between nonfiction and fiction.
“What I read is so broad,” he says. “I get interested in things and I read everything on it, sort of go down the rabbit hole, then I move on to the next thing.
“It’s definitely helped in my media role.” That said, Ikin sees himself as a little outside the news media’s obsession with finding the next story and creating the next narrative.
“I think the media landscape’s changed,” he says. “It used to be about the public interest and now it’s about what the public finds interesting.
“Sometimes there’s a clash of worlds with the news approach. I like stats and analysis, that’s what I love about the game, and, OK, maybe not many people would watch the show if it was just about that but it’s about discussion.”
It sounds very much like the stage is set for some more robust debate for the season ahead.
Hard core pundits rate NRL 360 the best footy show on TV although Ikin says not everyone’s a fan.
“I’ll often get women who say to me, ‘I don’t like you, you’re the bloke who steals my husband away from me three nights a week’,” he laughs.
He must be doing something right then.
“WHAT I READ IS SO BROAD. I GET INTERESTED IN THINGS AND I READ EVERYTHING ON IT, SORT OF GO DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, THEN I MOVE ON.”