This is an interview I did with the Manly and Australian legend, Steve ‘Beaver’ Menzies, filed for Rugby League World towards the end of the 2009 season, when Menzies’ impressive performances had been one of the few positives in a disappointing Bulls’ campaign.
STEVE Menzies was too old for Super League apparently.
Why on earth were Bradford Bulls signing a 35-year old fast approaching the end of his days? Even a legend like Menzies.
The Beaver, as he’s known, had made his first-grade debut all the way back in 1993, when Super League was just a glint in Rupert Murdoch’s eye. He first played in England in 1994 and had played a starring role in the Australian’s successful defence of the World Cup back in 1995.
His CV couldn’t be questioned. But his birth certificate could.
After all, ageing ex-Australia internationals have often struggled in England. There was Andrew Gee at Warrington, Greg Florimo at Wigan and Mark Carroll at London who all flattered to deceive, while Kevin Walters only hung around the Wolves for one match in 2001.
And Bulls fans with memories of Leeds paying an absolute fortune to the former Canberra greats Bradley Clyde and Brett Mullins in 2001, only to get next to nothing back, didn’t seem too enamoured with the signing of Menzies.
But instead of coming here just to pick up a generous final pension, as under-performing Aussies the wrong side of 30 have often been accused of doing in the past, Menzies has actually flourished in Super League, more than doing his bit for a struggling Bulls’ team. Usually a back-rower, he has filled in on numerous occasions at stand-off and centre, not looking out of place in either position.
He has often been the shining light in a disappointing Bradford performance and has proved to be one of the better signings from the NRL in recent seasons.
And by the end of July, he looked a good bet to be crowned the Bulls’ player of the year at the club’s black-tie awards’ night on 14 September. So don’t expect Menzies to regret leaving the Aussie champions for a club who have struggled at the wrong end of the table for much of the Super League season.
“I’m definitely happy I came here, there’s no doubt about that,” he states.
“My whole family have enjoyed themselves here. I was born in Manly and that’s where I grew up so I maybe didn’t expect something as perfect as playing for them but it’s still been fantastic here. The club’s been great with us.
“Things haven’t gelled as well on the pitch though. In some of the games I’ve been happy with how I’ve played but I know there’s still room for plenty of improvement.
“The competition this year has been more NRL like. Anyone can beat anyone on a good day. Look at the NRL – the Bulldogs had a nightmare in 2008 but this year they’ve been right up there. It isn’t good when the same teams get into the semi-finals all of the time.”
Bulls fans, however, will wish that the same teams do get to the play-offs all the time because they’ve made the cut every season since semi-final football was introduced in 1998. And Menzies feels that the club’s previous success has contrived to heap pressure on the club’s under-fire coach, Steve McNamara.
“Steve’s been great,” says Menzies.
“I chatted to him a couple of times before signing and the reasons I signed for the club were the traditions of the Bradford Bulls and because of Steve as coach.
“Over here coaches are under more pressure than back home as a result of how passionate the fans are. But dropped balls and missed tackles can’t be blamed on a coach. If it’s a lack of structure or motivation then fair enough, blame the coach, but that hasn’t been the case with us.
“The Bulls have always been in the top two or four so it must be hard for fans to see us out of the top eight. They’re obviously going to point at something because they’re used to winning.
“But some players have said this has been the best the boys have ever got on. The spirit is good. We’ve lost a lot of close games this year where there have been small patches where things have gone wrong.
“We’ve lost six or eight games by six points or less and in some of those games, completions have been under 50 per cent. You can’t blame that on a coach.
“On the flip side, though, the fans’ passion means that the atmosphere at grounds is great and I’ve loved experiencing it. I especially love grounds like Castleford and Leeds – the atmospheres there are fantastic. It’s not that I didn’t love playing back home – this is just something unique to the British game.
“If the fans are that passionate, though, they’re going to put coaches under pressure when they lose. But I wouldn’t give that up for the atmosphere they create.”
Menzies also talks enthusiastically about the young players in the Bradford squad. Not only is there Sam Burgess, but Menzies talks excitedly about a handful of Academy players who are just beginning to emerge as first-teamers.
A suspected bout of swine flu that saw Menzies ruled out of the round-22 Super League game at Celtic Crusaders resulted in him being sent home with the Bulls’ reserve side. Before that he watched the youngsters’ 40-12 win against their Welsh counterparts.
“I came down with flu-like symptoms but there were no tests to see if it was swine flu or normal flu,” he recalls. “They just ask you to stay at home which I did for five or six days before returning to training, so I was back for the home game with Harlequins.
“I’d travelled down to Wales for the game against Celtic Crusaders. It was a long journey so I went to bed early but I didn’t sleep too well and became pretty crook during the night.
“I got sent home with the reserves so the first team wouldn’t catch it! But I saw their game first. Steve Crossley played very well at prop and he’s got a big future in the game. So does Kieron Hyde, at stand-off.
“It’s great to see them coming through,” he says. “But the main two this year have been James Donaldson, who’s still only 17, and Elliott Whitehead, who’s 19. They’ve got great potential.
“The future here looks pretty good.
“It’s a big job stepping into a team that isn’t playing well – it’s much easier to come into a winning team – but they’ve put their hand up and done well. They’ve got a fair bit of mental toughness.”
Menzies remembers only too well the mental toughness that is required by a teenager to step into first-grade. His debut couldn’t have been any more daunting, as he lined up as a 19-year-old novice against the might of the Brisbane Broncos in 1993. The Broncos were the reigning premiers and would go on to successfully defend their crown that year, with League greats like Allan Langer, the Walters twins – Kevin and Kerrod – and Steve Renouf in the side.
“It’s daunting – I came into a side with Geoff Toovey and guys like that,” Menzies recalls. “My first game was against Broncos so I was up against players like Andrew Gee who I’d only ever seen on TV before.
“I distinctly remember asking myself, ‘What am I doing here? This is a place for legends not kids.'”
Within two years, however, Menzies had twice toured England with the Australian team, firstly as a squad member in 1994 and then as one of the Kangaroos’ best as they lifted the World Cup in 1995. Menzies was one of the players of the tournament, finishing as the top tryscorer with six efforts to his name, including two vital tries in the classic semi-final against New Zealand, when the Aussies needed extra-time to win.
“Things moved pretty quickly for me after my debut,” he remembers. “I went on the Kangaroo Tour in 1994 and played State of Origin with players like Bradley Clyde and opposite someone like Mal Meninga. That was just as daunting as my debut!
“Then I toured in 1994 at the age of 20. I played in the tour games, starting up in Workington against Cumbria when I scored two tries.
“The following year’s World Cup was fantastic. We couldn’t use any players who had aligned themselves with Super League – players from Brisbane, Canterbury etc so we were underdogs really.
“We had players like a young Joey Johns instead, Tim Brasher and Geoff Toovey. I was a bit older and it was a good time to play. It was a great tournament.”
So having playing in England twice, albeit a long time ago, Menzies was offered the chance to come back when Bradford offered him a one-year deal 12 months ago – a decision he describes as ‘hard’.
With Manly having struggled since their mid-‘nineties domination of the Australian game, it was perhaps inevitable that Menzies’ first choice would be to stay with his beloved Sea Eagles; especially in a year when they finally rediscovered their winning ways – they swept impressively towards the title under the coaching of their former scrum-half Des Hasler.
But having already agreed to join the Bulls, Menzies wasn’t to be denied his dream finish, bowing out in the most perfect of ways. Not only did he help the Sea Eagles to an astonishing 40-0 Grand Final win over Melbourne, avenging the 2007 final, but he scored a late try, shortly after appearing on the field as a substitute. His last appearance also saw him join Terry Lamb on a record-equalling 349 first-grade appearances in Australia.
“Even though I’ve loved it here, it was still a hard decision in a way,” he admits. “Manly didn’t really want to keep me and I didn’t want to play against Manly but I still wanted to play. I would have loved to have stayed but I’m so glad now that it’s turned out like this.
“My last game was obviously the Grand Final. We were 24 or 26-nil up and I was still concerned that we might not win but we scored again shortly after. I remember looking at the sideline to Glenn Hall and Mark Bryant and wondering if this was really happening. It was as surreal as that first game against the Broncos in 1993 and I even asked someone if it was a dream.
“Steve Matai got injured late on which is why I ended up back on the field and in the position to score the try. It was an amazing way to go out.”
Two more of those Grand Finals winners – prop Hall and hooker Heath L’Estrange – have also agreed to join Bradford and Menzies is confident that they will prove to be good signings.
“Glenn’s go forward is very good,” says Menzies.
“He plays the ball quickly and is a good, tough bloke to have up front. He can play in the back row as well and has a good turn of pace.
“Heath is a smart player out of dummy-half. He’s little so he’s nippy and picks his time when to run.
“He’s got ball skills and he’ll fit in here. He’ll suit the UK style of play.”
So how does Menzies define the “UK style of play” as he puts it?
“The main thing in the game over here is having a quick play the ball, then a slow play the ball then choosing the time to go,” he explains. “In the NRL, the speed of the play the ball is more constant. It’s more structured and you can work to a part of the field.
“If you try to work to a part of the field in Super League you can suddenly have a ball played in two seconds rather than five and the dummy-half has to go against the plan. Sometimes, over here, you can be going backwards so fast that it’s hard to number up.”
Another player who is soon expected to experience the differences between the two leagues is the highly rated 20-year old Burgess, who has been heavily linked with a move to Manly. Since making a sensational Great Britain debut at the age of 18 in 2007 against New Zealand, Burgess has been a target of a number of NRL clubs.
Burgess’s manager, former Bulls’ chairman, Chris Caisley, then added fuel to the fire at the end of July by telling League Express that his client is “certain” to play in the NRL in the next couple of years.
Menzies has been identified in the media as an obvious link between the player and the two clubs and has no doubts that Burgess could impress down under.
“I know Sam pretty well and I know he’d love to play in the NRL one day,” Menzies reveals.
“But he’s signed here for next year. Manly asked me about him but I try not to get too involved.
“But he’s still young with plenty to learn and international players like him will be able to adapt to the differences between the two competitions.”
But while Menzies is reticent on the possibility of Burgess moving to Australia, he has no hesitation in revealing his own future plans. He is as keen as ever to continue playing by extending his initial one-year deal with the Bulls.
If he does stay, it would take his incredible first-grade career into its 18th season.
“I’m hoping to have another year here,” he says. “I’m keen to stay and I hope the Bulls are keen to have me.
“If I do stay for another year, that will definitely be it!”