Mark ‘Spudd’ Carroll was one of the best forwards of the 1990s, playing in Grand Finals for Manly and winning caps for Australia.
His rivalry with Newcastle’s Paul Harragon remains one of the fiercest the game has ever seen.
After an unsuccessful stint with London Broncos in 1998, he returned to the NRL with South Sydney, where his friendship and working relationship with Russell Crowe began. Carroll’s autobiography can be purchased at penguin.com.au.
If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
I played in three Grand Finals in three years with Manly. We lost in ’95, won in ‘96 but ‘97 still haunts me, so I’ll go for 1996 when we beat St George.
Why are you nicknamed Spudd?
Well, it’s nothing to do with my head looking like a potato. As a kid in the Penrith comp I read that you should eat potatoes to give you energy. They probably meant just a few, but I ate 16 one day before a game. The aim back then was to do 20 hit-ups and 20 tackles in a game, and I was smashing that, so Peter Frilingos the journalist asked what my secret was. The next day it was on the back page and people were leaving potatoes on my doorstep. I wanted to get “Spud” on my car registration plate, but they only had “Spudd”, so I changed the spelling.
Why will you be donating brain to science when you die?
I can’t do much with it when I’m gone. I’d like to be able to help. Look how I played the game. I was brought up on badge-of-honour stuff – never show you’re hurt. I probably have a little bit of brain damage. The era before was far worse. I worry about those guys. They played the full 80 too.
How much did you hate Paul Harragon?
The rivalry was so big, we might have needed a different word! He was the big dog at Newcastle, and I took it upon myself to take out the number-one player. He got me a couple of times and I got him a few times. The main highlight was in 1995. Find it on YouTube – you’ll never see another collision like it. He tried to kill me. We were 100 kg each. It was like a car crash. My shoulder hit his head. I went 360. He was on the floor. A legacy was formed.
How did you find rooming with him on rep duty?
We roomed together in 1997 in camp with the Blues. I wasn’t happy with it. I think they did it for the publicity. All I know is I slept with my fists clenched. One thing I remember is playing together for Australia against the Kiwis in 1995 and we won. Bob Fulton was coach of Australia and Manly, and we had Newcastle the next weekend. He was in my ear, saying what the Chief wants to do to me. So were Geoff Toovey and Nik Kosef. They knew how to turn my screws. My dad phoned. He never played footy, but he said, “Get the first shot in.” Then he hung up! My mum then called. She’s five foot nothing and a Pommy from Manchester. “Don’t hurt anyone, Mark.” That was my build up to games against the Chief!
You scored a try from your own chip and chase in the 1986 Jersey Flegg Grand Final for Penrith against Cronulla. Where did skills like that come from?
I look back at my career, and that was the best game I ever played. I’d previously been a winger and a five-eighth, so I could play a bit. I played lock in this game. I was kicking goals and doing everything. I got a contract out of that game from Tim Sheens. It was a pittance – two thousand dollars, but I thought I was the king.
Sheens was just starting out as a coach. What was he like?
If a coach like Tim or Bob says tells you to run through a brick wall, you say, “How big do you want the hole?” Other coaches just don’t make you feel like that.
You moved to Souths in 1990 and were soon playing for Australia. Why did you improve so much at Souths?
I was a second rower by then, but Penrith had Mark Geyer and John Cartwright. George Piggins rang me up because I’d carved up his Under-23s. Les Davidson was there. I tried to look like him, so I grew my hair and had a see-through moustache! My goal was to be the best Souths player every year, but 1990 wasn’t the best year as we won the wooden spoon.
But one day we played Manly, and my dad told me to get into Ian Roberts and Martin Bella. I bashed the tripe out of Bella. They had a move with Roberts coming through the middle, and I hit him so hard. We lost. The next day I was working as a roof plumber. A lady came out and said there was a phone call for me. I thought, “Shit, someone’s dead!” But it was Geoff Carr from the ARL who said I’d been picked for a one-off Test against France and that it was down to Bozo, who had been impressed with my performance.
It’s rare for a player to play for Australia before their state. Did it frustrate you having to wait five years for an Origin appearance?
I always wanted to pull the blue shirt on. I slept in my outfit the night before my first game. I missed out due to politics in 1994, which was frustrating, but I played Origin and Tests in 1995. That was the year Queensland were called no-hopers because there were no Super League-aligned players. Maybe some complacency came in. They won the first game 2-0. When do you ever see that score? I missed game two because I’d hit Dave Furner down in Canberra. Then we lost game three. Nightmare!
What are your recollections of the 1995 World Cup?
With no Super League players, they finally picked a side on form. We drank for seven hours on the plane, then they turned the drinks off. We got hammered in training and we lost to the Pommies at Wembley. I thought we were going home when Ridgey lined up the conversion for New Zealand in the semi-final, but we escaped and we won the final 16-8. I remember the score because my son was born on August 16 that year. I really wanted to leave something at Wembley, so I poked a hole in the changing-room roof and put my boots there. When I played for London in 1998, we were taken around the stadium one day. I got into the roof to find the boots, but someone had taken them!
You played with some huge personalities at Manly between 1994 and 1997.
It was an incredible mix of people. Cliff [Lyons] would walk in with a sausage roll or a hot dog and he’d have a cig before a game, but he’d run all day. Geoff Toovey is the toughest player I’ve ever seen. Ridgey had a mouth on him. You got an ear bashing if you did something wrong. Bob was ahead of his field – we did 20-minute video sessions, not several hours. I treated my jersey like it was my last piece of armour to go on, but John Hopoate and Craig Field would hide it and I’d destroy the sheds to find it.
What do you remember of the three Grand Finals?
We only lost three games in 1995, but one was a Grand Final unfortunately. We’d beaten the Bulldogs 26-0 four months earlier. We were flat. They got a seven-tackle set, which they scored from. We knew 1996 would be our year. We only had a few weeks of pre-season training because of the World Cup. It was all about defence. We’d hold sides out for three sets, and then we’d score a try. I think we still hold the defensive record for ‘96.
And 1997? Can you still see the winning try?
Yeah, bastard! I’ve never watched the game again, but Joey went down the blind side, Hoppa was a bit slack, and we didn’t work on the inside. It was a crazy moment.
Matthew Ridge said in his book that you told Manly that London Broncos had offered you a contract as a bit of leverage in your negotiations with them. But they just told you to go to London. Is that true?
Yeah, pretty much. I was a little disappointed with Manly because I was only 30 or 31. I should have backed myself too, but I still thought it was a great opportunity. My daughter was born on New Year’s Day, and I had to leave a few days after. It was freezing. I didn’t do the research and I lost money on the deal. I should have stayed at Manly, but it was a great experience, and we had a chance to travel. We shared a ground with Harlequins rugby union where Zinzan Brooke was coach. He wanted me as a flanker. I didn’t know what a flanker was, so I went back to Souths.
You played in an era of great props. Other than Harragon, which were the best you faced and which rivalries did you enjoy the most?
No one came close to the Chief. Ah, I’ll tell you what though. I only came across Adrian Morley late in my career and he was amazing. He was my sort of player. I loved how he put his body on the line. He’s a bloody great bloke too. If I’d stayed longer in England, I’d have put my name forward to play for Great Britain. I’d have loved to play with Moz.
You’ve worked as a bodyguard for Russell Crowe and Richard Branson. Who was the nicer boss?
[laughs]. I met them both in the changing room before a game. I’d put this sticky stuff on my hands to help me grip the ball and I shook hands with Richard. He must shake hands with so many people. He doesn’t care what he wears either. He had a wet-fish handshake, and I nearly crushed his hand. He yelped and my hand stuck to his!
I was a bit of a nutcase before a game. One day with Souths, Tom Cruise walked in with Russell. I recognised Tom but not Russell because I wasn’t really into films. Anyway, we exchanged numbers and our relationship took off. I retired from the NRL at 32 due to a foot injury of all things. I came back to play for Orara Valley Axemen at 36. Look them up. Sam Burgess will be coaching them next year and it’s a great place to play.
After that, Russell advised me to set up a gym. He said it should be called Spudd’s, and he drew the logo, which I still use. I thank him every Christmas for what he’s done for me.
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