I spoke to Stacey in Perpignan after he had led Catalans to a Challenge Cup win over Featherstone Rovers in 2007. The piece was published in League Express.
Tell us about your Rugby League background Stacey.
I had a grandfather who played for New Zealand and my older brothers played as well so it was always going to be a game that I played. My brothers didn’t go too far in the game but I was fortunate to have them to compete with at an early age! Then, at about 15 or 16 years of age, you start thinking that professional footy could be an option and by then we knew that Auckland Warriors definitely had a Winfield Cup place from 1995. I got a scholarship for them along with guys like Joe Vagana and Henry Paul and it went from there.
1995 was your big year with your first-grade debut for the Warriors and the World Cup in England.
I started off in reserve grade playing for Frank Endacott but midway through the year I was called up into the first team where I stayed ever since. We had a good team then with guys like Dean Bell, Greg Alexander and Stephen Kearney and it was fantastic to play with blokes like that. The World Cup was fantastic but one thing I remember is the pay disputes between the management and the senior players. Guys like Matthew Ridge and Kevin Iro were fed up with years of promises not being delivered. They were telling us to hold out and not go to training but the Kiwi management were telling us younger guys like me, Henry and Gene Ngamu that if we did that we’d never play for New Zealand again! The players told us they’d never do that to us and in the end it got sorted out but that’s what I remember most about the World Cup. Then there was that semi-final with Australia at Huddersfield which went to extra-time. We could have even won if Ridgey’s drop-goal had gone over and I can still remember the disappointment of the older blokes in the changing room who were thinking that they’d never get such a good chance again to beat the Aussies when it really mattered.
Tell us about the Kiwi team of the late 1990s. You thrashed Great Britain in 1998 and impressed so many people in the 1999 Tri-Nations although you missed the final with an injury. Do you think you’d have made a difference if you’d played?
It was disappointing to get that arm injury against Tonga the week before the final but I wouldn’t have made a difference even though we only lost by two points. An advantage that we have over Great Britain and Australia is that we don’t have our own competition and when we come together there’s special bond with guys coming back from both the Australian and the English competitions. Frank Endacott made sure we had a good time on and off the field and back then we had players like Jarrod McCracken, Tony Iro and Daryl Halligan who were finishing up so we wanted to make it special for them. Touring Great Britain was one of the best times in my life and that series result in 1998 was fantastic for us.
Things soon went wrong on and off the field at the Warriors. What happened in those dark days of 2000?
It was a shambles wasn’t it? It just went from bad to worse and my manager Peter Brown was reassuring me that if I had to leave there’d be plenty of interest from elsewhere. We’d had different coaches and different owners, with each of them promising big things. The worst time was just before we left for the 2000 World Cup where there’d have been no more Warriors if things hadn’t been sorted out within a week. The new owners came in and the club’s name became New Zealand Warriors instead of Auckland Warriors but in a players’ meeting, guys like Joe Vagana and Logan Swann wanted to play things cool with the club even though we’d been offered deals. I wanted to sign though and do what was best for myself and my family. They weren’t too happy with me but I’m glad I did sign and I had a fantastic time with the Warriors from then on in.
The club made the finals in 2001 and the Grand Final itself in 2002. Did you expect things to come together so quickly?
No, not at all! Our squad was probably the weakest in terms of the amount of internationals that we had in all the time I was at the Warriors. What we maybe benefitted from was lower expectations and also Daniel Anderson, our new coach, brought in many new ideas. We got into the semi-finals in 2001 where we lost to Parramatta and in 2002 our aim was to make the top four. We achieved that and even went on to make the Grand Final against the Roosters. 2003 was a good year as well when we got to within one game of another Grand Final and we really thought that 2004 would be our year but unfortunately things fell to pieces. We lost our first three games and pressure was coming from everywhere. I was playing well below my best and was under pressure from Daniel while he was under pressure too. I just couldn’t work it out. We had the same players from the previous couple of years.
Was there a problem between Daniel and yourself and the other senior players?
Well, we had our run-ins for sure but, at the end of the day, it was sad to see him go. He was the best coach I’d had at that age and he took my game to the next level. It was a shame that the things he did at the club couldn’t continue. We still speak now and have a drink together after the Catalans play St Helens in Super League games.
I take it that the highlight of your career is the Tri-Nations Final win in 2005 against Australia?
Yes, it was a big highlight of course although the last win for me, whether it be for club or country is always the biggest one. It was a crazy time because I’d told Bluey [coach Brian McClennan] that I could only play in the first two games before the UK leg of the competition because of the forthcoming birth of my child and then I also had to get to France for the Dragons’ launch which the club expected me to be at. But then Lance Hohaia got injured and Brian was left short so he persuaded me to play in London against Great Britain and Steve Deakin, the Catalans coach at the time, agreed. So I played in that and we won but, the following week, Lance got injured again against England at Warrington so Bluey was back on the ‘phone persuading me to play again in Huddersfield against Great Britain. So I played in that and then against France the following week. After that, I flew to New Zealand for the birth and then came back for the final against Australia. No-one expected us to win the final but what a great performance we put in.
Are you enjoying playing with the Catalans even though the injuries have been a downer for you?
It does get a little frustrating at times being injured but I haven’t been rushed back on either occasion. I’m enjoying it here but we’re looking for a better season in 2007.
You must have enjoyed all the travelling you endured at the Warriors because you’ve chosen to play for the equivalent team in the Super League.
I didn’t think of that when I signed! I was just excited about the prospect of playing in France then I realised I’d be flying every other week again but we have a tight-knit group though which makes things a lot easier although Awen Guttenbeil, who’s now at Castleford, was telling me recently how much better life is for him now without all the flying!
You have some excellent fringe players at the Dragons. Do you consider the future of French Rugby League to be in good hands?
Yes. I can compare it to how New Zealand’s international team came along after the Warriors were introduced and it’s important that there are plenty of French players playing every week in the Super League. There’s a language barrier obviously but if young French players can learn how the Australians and the English game is played then plenty of them will come through to play at the highest level and we’re on the way to achieving that down here.
How’s your French coming along?
Mate, it’s terrible. It’s got worse since I got here!