Watching Tonie Carroll at the peak of his powers was pure joy. He conducted the following interview for League Express while in England with Brisbane Broncos in 2007 for their World Club Challenge match against St Helens.
How did you get into Rugby League Tonie?
I was born in New Zealand and played my first Rugby League for Sydenham and then went to Australia at the age of five. There, I played for South Woodridge who later became known as Logan City. I played for Waterford at Under-15s which is when it started to become interesting. That’s when the Broncos start looking at players and when I made my first representative side. I played for Australian Schoolboys and then moved onto the Broncos.
How did your path at the Broncos unfold at first?
I left school in 1993 and went straight into their Reserve Grade side the following year. I had a bad run with injuries, specifically my shoulders for a couple of years but made my first grade debut against the Cowboys in 1996. I was a front rower as a youngster but the Broncos made me a centre.
What were the highlights of your first spell at Brisbane?
1997 was a big deal winning the World Club Challenge and the Super League comp. That was the year that the game was split in Australia, so they were interesting times. Personally, I think my best year was 1998, making State of Origin for the first time and winning another Grand Final in the first year of the NRL.
Tell us about that Origin debut which was an absolute fairytale for you, scoring the winning try in the final seconds.
Technically it was my Origin debut but I’d played for Queensland the year before in the Tri-Series competition with New South Wales and New Zealand when we lost that classic final to the Blues in the longest game of Rugby League ever. But the Origin in 1998 was fantastic. We were 23-18 down with a minute left and we were still in our own half. Kevin Walters kicked ahead, we got it back, it went through the hands, Locky got involved two or three times, it went through the hands again and I scored next to the posts. Locky kicked the goal and we won 24-23.
Most people can only dream of a moment like that. What is it like to score a try like that?
I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it. It was the biggest deal of my life, like being handed my first ever jersey. The proudest moment of my life.
If everything went according to plan in 1997 and 1998 then what happened in 1999? Winless at the bottom of the table, how did you react when Allan Langer suddenly left the club mid-season?
Fortunately I didn’t play in the game just before he retired. I’d been dropped to Reserve Grade. All I remember was seeing Alfie substituted, which was very rare. We knew something was up and then we read in the papers that he’d retired. We couldn’t believe it but we put together a dream run to scrape into the finals which was a hell of an effort. Then we went on to win the NRL again in 2000 but the bad times that you refer to brought us closer together and helped us appreciate the wins. We had a motto at the Broncos that we’d always enjoy the good times but that, in adversity, we’d still enjoy each other’s company and that’s what brought us through it.
Talk us through your decision to play for the Kiwis in the World Cup in 2000 only to refuse to play for them again.
Well, the World Cup doesn’t have Test status so there was dispensation for players to play for their Home Nation to make it a stronger competition but we were told that we could still be eligible for Australia afterwards. I got wind that I had no chance of playing for Australia so I put my hand up for New Zealand. I think it was a great move and loved that World Cup, even making the World XIII afterwards.
Every year thereafter, the Kiwis asked me to play for them but I always turned them down although I was very tempted in 2004. I gave them a half-hearted ‘maybe’ but people were telling me that I had a chance of playing for Australia so that’s when I decided to play for them.
So your decision to turn down the Kiwis after the World Cup was because you still wanted to play Origin?
Yes, my Origin career would have been over if I’d played a proper Test for New Zealand. State of Origin means the world to me and I wanted to carry on playing for Queensland when I returned to Australia from my time at Leeds.
Did you think you were risking your future Origin chances by coming to England given the Australian attitude to players coming over here?
No, I don’t think so. I went to England when I was young so I knew I’d have plenty to offer when I went back. I was getting into a rut at Brisbane and needed a change. I think it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I came back to Australia a lot keener, leaner and enjoying my football and I have my spell in England to thank for that.
Leeds had a bad year in 2001 with Brett Mullins and Brad Clyde failing to settle in as well as Iestyn Harris leaving. Was it a good place to be back then?
I had a pretty good year and I’ve got no regrets. The players treated me really well too. When I first went over, Dean Lance was the coach but he got sacked and Daryl Powell took over although he was new to coaching and pretty raw.
What was it like being coached by Wayne Bennett one minute and then by someone at Leeds who had only just finished playing?
I struggled with it a hell of a lot. They brought me over from the Broncos to try and help out with the way the Australians play the game but I felt as though they weren’t interested in what I was saying. After that, I kept out of the limelight and tried to avoid the situations when everybody was bagging everybody else but, by the second year there, it got to me and I lost a bit of my edge. I didn’t perform as well in 2002.
So, how hard was it to go back to the NRL when you weren’t in the best of form?
I didn’t have the best of years in 2003 but I knew I was fit enough. I should have played better but it was just one of those things that I didn’t.
Your good form returned in 2004 and you were selected to play for Australia. What do you remember of the Tri-Nations?
The final was amazing wasn’t it? The game before we lost to Great Britain and before that we’d only just beaten them in the last minute at Manchester. I’ve never experienced anything like that final. Everything we touched turned to gold. We had no idea it was going to happen either, it just unfolded as we got out there.
Did you get some grief from the Kiwis earlier in the competition having chosen to play for Australia?
Yes I did! They gave it to me and it was my good mate Ruben Wiki. I deserved it and knew I was going to cop it.
2006 was another dream year for you and the Broncos and Queensland also won their first Origin series since 2001. Do you regard last year as your best ever?
Yes, this one meant the most. There were big changes in some areas at the club and our whole pre-season training was altered when Dean Benton came in. We stopped the 8k runs and trained specifically for the games. We got off to a horrible start, getting thrashed by the Cowboys, although fortunately I didn’t play! But then things came good and the hard work in the season began to pay off. We were underdogs in the final, whereas in 1998 and 2000 we’d been raging favourites so we knew our backs were against the wall. To come out the way we did was just amazing. The Storm were the best team throughout the season but Grand Finals are won on the day. Origin was also fantastic. It was a fairytale with Locky scoring the decider right at the end of the third game.
Who are the best players you’ve played with and against?
Darren Lockyer without a doubt and Nathan Hindmarsh is the best I’ve played against. As far as the Brits go from internationals and my time at Leeds, then Kevin Sinfield was the best I played with and Adrian Morley was one I hated playing against. He was a fierce competitor. Also a mention for Danny McGuire at Leeds. He was young when I was there, but what a player!
Who’s had the biggest influence on your career?
Wayne Bennett. If there’s no Wayne, there’s no me. I’d have had no career. Also, Cyril Connell. He played for Australia and is a development officer at the Broncos. He spotted me playing at school and got me on a scholarship.