Driven by failure, motivated by heartbreak: the remarkable journey of Steve Price, from Milperra to Warrington

We are defined by many things in life. But it is arguably our failings, and the lessons we learn along the way, that make us the people we are today. They either make us, or they break us. The year is 1999, and a young, 22-year-old utility by the name of Steven John Price has suffered a second serious knee injury in the space of a few years.

Having been released by St George, his second opportunity to crack the NRL with Balmain had been curtailed with another long-term injury lay-off. His dream, which he harboured playing in the sandpits in a small Australian town by the name of Revesby, had gone up in smoke before it had even been given a chance to get going.

Many would have called time on their involvement with rugby league at that point. Retirement at any age is tough to deal with; at 22, having played just a handful of first-grade games, few would have begrudged Price if he had walked. But as anyone who knows the man that is now proud to call himself coach of Warrington Wolves will testify, Price didn’t fade away: he evolved.

“It rocked me, for sure,” he reveals. “From playing footy in the backyard with my old man, who gave me a fantastic upbringing with my mum, I was a pretty average player who got the opportunity to go through the grades at St George. It wasn’t until the injuries hit, and I was left with nothing that you wonder what the hell you’re going to do with yourself.”

Price was not your average rugby player though: at least not in terms of his approach to the game away from the rugby field. “I used to listen to every coach that had something to say, and I would take notes even back in my late-teens,” he admits. “I had this big notepad that had all the pointers in it. I was a real student of the game, and I tried to take things in and learn new ways of doing things.”

It was that attitude that saw him earn a way back into the sport in 2002. Still only 25, Price was given the chance to work alongside Nathan Brown, coaching the Dragons’ under-20s. It was the beginning of a coaching career that would take him all the way to the sport’s summit: before everything came crashing down around him again several years later.

But having worked with so many influential people to learn about coaching at such a young age, Price had no qualms about beginning a new journey. “There was a local community coach by the name of Roy Robertson when I was younger; I truly looked up to him,” Price says. “He got me enjoying the game again when I was 15 or 16. You can stray a bit in a different direction but he aligned me. I’ve had a number of excellent coaches I’ve worked under like David Waite too, who’ve really formed me. But my mum and dad have really played a huge part too in making me into the person I am now.”

Just like as a player, Price worked his way through the coaching grades. Then, in 2012, came his big opportunity. Wayne Bennett, who Price had worked under as assistant of the Dragons, left for Newcastle. Price was promoted to head coach at the of 34: when most people he’d grew up training alongside were still playing the game.

“I’d done over 10 years before I got the first-grade gig at the Dragons,” he insists. “I honestly thought the time was right and I’ve no regrets about that.” Price, by his own admission, made mistakes. The Dragons struggled, finishing 9th in 2012 and 14th in 2013. In early-2014, after a difficult start to the season, Price was sacked by St George-Illawarra.

15 years on from his professional playing career crumbling at his feet, Price was facing the same situation again as a coach. Would he quit? “Not a chance mate,” he smiles. “It stirred something inside of me, being sacked like that. It’s made me more hungry and while it was a real kick up the backside that hurt, coaching was where I belonged.”

Price evolved himself once again. This time, he stepped away from league altogether and embraced a different world to add extra layers of resonance to his undoubted knowledge of the game. A self-confessed student of the sport, Price went back to school to reinvent himself.

“When I was out of the game, I embraced a lot of different trends and cultures,” he reveals. “I spent a lot of time in the AFL and was always trying to look at different sports to grow myself and my education. You look at the outside world, appreciate what’s going on.. and that was important in making me who I am today. I went on a study trip to America, took myself out of the game for a bit and tried some different stuff.”

But all roads led back to league eventually, and after being dismissed by the Dragons, he settled at Cronulla, working under Shane Flanagan at the Sharks. “It’s important that you get it right after such a harsh experience before,” Price says. “I spent three wonderful years at Cronulla under Shane Flanagan and that was awesome. He was a great mentor to me. But to be involved in a different club with a very different culture to the Dragons was good for me.”

Fast-forward to 2017, and the man who tries to embrace different cultures and different ways of life was ready for his next challenge: 12,000 miles away in Warrington. Here, he has become hugely popular with almost everyone he meets and seemingly shares the collective desire harboured by many in the town to bring the Super League title to Warrington for the first time in 65 years.

But after all this education, and all those years in the game, just what does a Steve Price team look like? “They have to have a backbone and jeez, they’d better be ready to work hard,” he smiles. “They need to be selfless, and they have to put the team before their own interests. It’s not about individuality; if you think that, get yourself off and do boxing or something like that. But just as important as being a good player? Being a good person. Respect your mates, they’ll respect you.”

Respect is a word frequently high on Price’s agenda, and most casual observers would surely respect the way the 42-year-old has reinvented himself time and time again to become the man he is today. He could have been broken on numerous occasions, but instead of walking away, he found a way back.

“I don’t think I would be the same guy if I’d played 300 first-grade games and gone to 35.. I probably wouldn’t even be at Warrington,” he says. “I might not even be coaching. I was an average player but I’m a believer that things happen for a reason. I’m here for a reason, and I’m here to win. That’s who I am and I hope people can see that.”