‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Hull KR’s Mick Vella in 2007, the club’s first season in Super League. Since then they have cemented their Super League status, improving every year with the former Australia prop a key figure.
How are you settling into England?
Fine, apart from having to move house because we got flooded two weeks ago. We were an inch and a half under water. I cleaned it up but the insurance company told us there was too much damage and we had to move out.
How did your move to Hull KR come about?
I was in regular contact with James Webster because I played at Parramatta with him. I also played with Justin Morgan who rang Parramatta and asked if they’d let me go. I have a Maltese passport now which made things easier but it was a tough decision to make because I’d been at the Eels for 12 years. I signed a three year deal with Hull KR and hopefully we’ll stay up so I can see my contract out.
What will happen to you if the club is relegated?
I’ll have to find a new club because it’s a Super League contract but I’m confident that we can do it. If we can beat Salford and win one more game we should be OK.
If you do have to leave will you stay in England or go back to the NRL?
I want to stay over here. I want to finish my career here, retire then go back to Australia.
You made an excellent start to the season but have since tailed off. Why is that?
Our defence was very strong at the start of the year and we won some tight games but I think our inexperience may have become a factor and also the games have quickened up as the season has gone on.
Has the Paul Cooke signing been disruptive?
I don’t think so. All of our halfbacks have done well at times during the season. We’ve signed a very good player which can only be a good thing for the club. It caused a lot of turmoil in the city but I was just pleased a quality player wanted to join us.
How did you end up at Parramatta Eels?
I started playing the game as a young kid. My dad’s friend coached an Under-7s team and I was taken down to play. I was kicking, screaming and crying because I didn’t want to play but I made a few friends and enjoyed it. The junior clubs that I played for were in the Parramatta district so I made my way through the junior ranks and the junior representative sides and made my first grade debut in 1998.
What was it like playing under Brian Smith?
I’d always played under him until halfway through last season when Jason Taylor took over. Brian is a very smart coach, never leaving a stone unturned. I don’t think I’d have played so many games had it not been for him and there are a lot of guys who will say that.
How do you look back on your State of Origin career?
It was a long time ago but it was something I really enjoyed and we always had a great time in camp. In my first year, Mark Carroll didn’t even know who I was. He thought I was a fan who had turned up to watch training! I played with some fantastic players and it was always a great experience. That first year was 1999 and I got in to the side for the second game because of a suspension to Jason Stevens. We won that game then drew the decider but had to watch Queensland lift the shield just because they were holders and we hadn’t won it off them. The same thing happened in 2002 as well.
How long did it take you to get over Parramatta’s loss in the 2001 Grand Final after you’d dominated the competition all year?
I still think about it sometimes and people still bring it up. We played some great football that year but Newcastle played the perfect half of football and led 24-0. We came back to lose 30-24 and might have won with a few more minutes. But it was so disappointing to lose.
What went on behind the scenes in the build up to the on/off Kangaroo Tour of 2001?
I was one of the guys who was questioning whether we wanted to go if there was a possibility of war breaking out and us being stranded in England. We wanted guarantees that we could get back home. Once we started to get the assurances we were after, they organised a shortened tour, which meant we only played the three Tests which was a shame because as soon as we got adjusted to England, we were off home. We lost the first Test only having a couple of days to prepare but we came home with the cash in the end. I played in the first two games. I was dropped after the first game but then Jason Stevens was suspended for stepping on Terry O’Connor’s head so I kept my place but sat out of the third when he came back.
Britain’s best player in that series was Paul Sculthorpe who has just retired from international Rugby League. How highly did you rate him?
I remember not knowing much about him and I charged into him. He put a big hit on me and I came away thinking I wouldn’t run into him again! I quickly learned who he was. He’d have gone well in the NRL being so skilful and strong.
What’s been the highlight of your career?
Playing for Australia and playing with legends like Andrew Johns.
Do you still follow the NRL?
Yes, I have Setanta and I watch the three games a week although it’s strange not seeing them all because every game is televised back home. The Eels are doing well and beat Brisbane on Monday 20-16. They got rid of all their crap players, namely me, and have really kicked on! I’m really happy for them and still have a lot of friends there.
Will we ever see you play for Malta?
I’ve been involved with on two occasions. I helped with the coaching the first time and then ran on with the water and the messages the time after but I haven’t played for them yet unfortunately because I wasn’t fit enough on either occasion. But I’d really like to play for them before I retire. It’s my dad who is Maltese and my mum Australian. My dad is one of nine children and the first four or five were born in Malta but he was the first born in Australia after the family moved.
What was the story with your cancer scare in February 2005?
I copped a knock the season before in a game against Manly and my voice went a bit husky. Just before I was going to get it checked out, it flared up again when Mark Riddell elbowed me in the throat during a training session. So I went to get it checked out and it ended up being thyroid cancer.
How did you feel when you first found out?
The doctor sat me down and told me that it’s a slow-growing cancer and he made me feel at ease but when he first said the word ‘cancer’ it was a big worry. But five seconds later I was comfortable because he told me about it and told me that I could have had it for a year already. I was advised to get it cleared up straightaway which involved removing the thyroid completely. I found out about the cancer on the Thursday, played in a match on the Saturday, saw a specialist on the Monday and had the operation on the Tuesday. Even now – and for the rest of my life – I have to take daily medication which is a hormone replacement drug called thyroxene which is used by people with thyroid problems. I take the tablets every morning half an hour before breakfast and it’s just routine now.
Was your career in doubt?
There were two complications that could have happened after the operation and both would have affected my football career. Firstly, they were cutting the cancer out near my vocal cords so there was a chance that I wouldn’t have been able to speak again which would have made it pretty hard to play football. Secondly, I could have developed breathing difficulties which would have also made playing sport at an elite level difficult. They were the two major concerns but when I woke from the operation, I was OK and the doctor gave me the all-clear to carry on playing footy which was a big relief.