This article, written by Pete Stephenson, originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 399 is currently in production and will be on sale from June 6. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
Rugby League World hears how Hull KR forward Neville Costigan put a chequered start to his career behind him to reach the very top…
Unpretentious, softly spoken and relaxed, are words that have not often been associated with a player who was once a contender for the NRL’s biggest bad boy, but Neville Costigan’s calming presence as we talk belies a fierce reputation.
In a diverse NRL career, Hull KR’s latest Papua New Guinean recruit was known for being one of the most aggressive forwards during a decade in Australia’s top competition.
A Grand Final winner, three State of Origin series triumphs with the imperious Queenslanders, and featuring at two World Cups have been the fearsome forward’s highlights so far. And the 29-year-old will be looking to add that impressive CV during the next chapter of his career, in Super League.
However, things could have been quite different for Costigan and it was his ill behaviour off the field that nearly brought an abrupt end to life as a professional Rugby League player.
After making a handful of first grade appearances in 2003, Costigan really burst onto the scene in 2004 when he was named the NRL’s Rookie of the Year after his powerful displays as a defensive enforcer for the Brisbane Broncos.
But in 2006, Costigan was sacked from the Broncos after being caught driving while under the influence of alcohol, which left him contemplating his future in the game.
“The Broncos had always been the team I supported growing up, and it was a dream come true when I got the opportunity to sign with them,” Costigan told Rugby League World. “At that time, they were really in their pomp and they had some awesome players.
“Shane Webcke, Darren Lockyer, Petro Civoniceva and Gordan Tallis – these guys were my idols. I especially looked up to Gordan, I loved the way he played the game and I just loved being in his presence.
“But Brisbane is a big party town and because it’s in the same state as where I grew up, I had a lot of friends away from rugby who I would go out socialising and drinking with.
“I guess I was just young and dumb and as a result of my actions I ended up missing out in playing in a Grand Final. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the game – I was that upset, and I nearly ended up quitting Rugby League.
“I knew if I was going to carry on then things had to change. My dad sat me down and we had a long talk. He told me the only way to make people forget what happened is to turn your career around, do all the good things right and concentrate on footy.
“After what happened at Brisbane, I was just so happy to be given another chance when I joined Canberra and I was determined to knuckle down this time.”
Costigan rejuvenated himself while in the nation’s capital and his performances for the Raiders didn’t go unnoticed by the Queensland selectors. In 2007, he made his State of Origin bow when coming off the bench for the Maroons and helping them secure a 25-18 victory over the old enemy New South Wales. It was rapid turnaround in fortunes for hulking forward whose career looked in doubt just 12 months earlier.
“Playing Origin was one of the best experiences of my life. Especially the first series that I was involved in after all that had gone on, to be a part of that great Queensland squad was something I was very thankful for.
“Being around the likes of Jonathan Thurston and seeing how they train and go about their business is very special and it makes you a better player.
“The hype surrounding Origin in Australia is unreal. You’re in camp for 10 days leading up to the game and you have to do all the promos and things. The fans up in Queensland really come out in force and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Costigan’s stint with the Raiders came to an end the following year when a torn quadriceps muscle plagued his 2008 season. His time at Canberra didn’t pass without a hint of controversy though and his fiery temperament was brought into question when he appeared to head-butt Sydney Roosters’ Amos Roberts when shaking hands after the final whistle.
It would be his old mentor, and the coach that sacked him in Wayne Bennett who would curb the firebrand’s aggression and give him the opportunity of second chance at lifting the famous Provan-Summons trophy – this time in the legendary ‘Red V’ of the St George Illawarra Dragons.
“I liked to go out and stir a lot of the other players up a bit, maybe sometimes I could be overly aggressive but things like that happen on the pitch. I used to give a lot of stupid penalties away but you learn and it’s part of maturing as a player and as a person.
“Wayne (Bennett) really influenced this part of my game, he told me it was all about controlled aggression and how to use that effectively an in a positive manner. Wayne made me the player I was and am – I probably wouldn’t have played as long as I did in the NRL If it wasn’t for him. Wayne just knows the game and how it’s supposed to be played and his man-management is second to none. He helped me heaps away from the field as well as on it. He’s been like a father figure and he’ll always be a mate after I finish playing footy.
“When Wayne first rang and asked me to go to the Dragons, I knew I could get another chance at getting close to a Grand Final with him in charge. The Grand Final day was the best experience of my whole footy career, just that one day because everybody plays all year for that one game and the season comes down to 80-minutes on the field.
“I can’t really remember much of what happened in the game, but I remember the start when you run out in front of 80,000 plus people, the atmosphere, the noise, everything, it’s better than Origin, better than anything. When that final whistle went the feelings were a mixture of emotion, elation and relief, you just couldn’t believe this was happening to you.”
St George’s Grand Final victory over Sydney Roosters in 2010 would be Costigan’s final game for the Dragons as salary cap restrictions meant he would have to find his fourth club.
Newcastle Knights would be his next destination where Costigan would again link up with Bennett, who joined them a year later as their head coach. And, it would be the first time that Costigan would work with his present coach at Hull KR, Craig Sandercock.
“The Knights knew I was coming off contract and as soon as they showed interest in me I agreed to join them the following year. It’s a big club with plenty of history and away from the big city. I hate the city, and really liked Newcastle as a town.
“It didn’t start well as in 2011 I broke my arm and I was out for 12 weeks. When I came back I played pretty good footy for the rest of the season. But when Wayne came, I sort of fell into my comfort zone a little bit and thought everything was going to happen for me without putting all the hard work in. For those couple of years I didn’t play any good because I just thought it was going to happen.
“I loved Newcastle and I loved the team there, but my head wasn’t right and I knew I needed a change. That’s when Sandy got in touch with me to come over here.”
At still only 29 years old, Costigan signed a two-year contract with Hull KR at the end of last season but before he would get his first taste of Super League action there was a matter of captaining his country at the World Cup to deal with first.
The hugely successful 2013 World Cup was Costigan’s second tournament after he represented the Kumuls in 2008 when the competition was staged down under.
“I started playing Rugby League when I was 12 years old for the Mackay West Tigers in Queensland, when the family moved there, but I grew up watching the sport in PNG. I was never really interested in playing for Australia; I had a couple of chances to play in the Prime Minister’s XIII, but I’ve always wanted to play for PNG alongside my fellow Kumuls.”
“I just love being around all the boys. They don’t have much back home and they really appreciate everything and when they travel they get real excited and have loads of fun – that makes you grounded and it gets the best of you.
“The World Cup in Australia was an amazing trip. My debut for PNG was against England and although we didn’t win the game we got really close. It was during that stage when I was really enjoying my footy and that experience with the boys got me back up.
“Last year’s tournament was the first time I’d been to England and it put me in good stead for what was going to happen after the competition with Hull KR. We were based in Hull for about a month, so it gave me a good chance to have a look around the place and get familiar with my new surroundings. We had two games here at Hull KR and I loved the atmosphere – you could instantly tell how passionate the fans are about their Rugby League.”
Costigan has formed part of a formidable looking Rovers pack that includes former Dragons’ teammate Mick Weyman and fellow Aussie Justin Poore. The trio were part of eight new signings made by Sandercock and whilst the Robins endured a slow to start to the season they have shown signs, that on their day, they can be a match for anyone.
In an era when we don’t see the cream of talent that Australia has to offer coming to play in our competition any more, it’s refreshing to see a player of Costigan’s calibre and stature plying his trade on these shores.
And Costigan joins the increasing number of Kumuls to have played at the newly named KC Lightstream Stadium after the trailblazers Stanley Gene and John Okul started the trend back in 1996.
“I came over here with my girlfriend who loves it and doesn’t want to go back, which is good for me as most of the Aussie blokes that come over here leave early because of their partners.
“We did arrive a bit late and I only had three weeks pre-season training then it was straight into playing footy – I won’t be doing that again! Those first two or three rounds I was struggling big time with my fitness but I’m catching up now. I think the game’s a lot more physical over here and I’m enjoying it now we’ve got some wins under our belt, the sun’s starting to come out and the weather’s getting a bit warmer.
“Nowadays, I’m a pretty chilled out guy away from the field. I just try and relax as much as I can and I love fishing, playing golf and hanging out with the rest of the guys.”
In more ways than one, Neville Costigan has come a long way from his early days in the NRL.