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

Life & Style Weekend - - BIG READ -

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.”

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