In last week’s issue, legendary Aussie prop Shane Webcke gave us some of his observations about some of the great Englishmen he came up against.
This week he talks more about State of Origin, Wayne Bennett and about some of the Australian players he rates highly, both as players and as friends.
RR: One tour you missed was in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Can you talk us through that episode?
SW: I’m going to be filthy about that for the rest of my life. It was absolute bullshit what went on. I’m a man of my word. The misconception was that I was worried about things. I was not – not one iota. I trusted our nation would not send us anywhere with any danger. I was ready to go, but when the senior players got together, the situation had worsened with the invasion of Afghanistan. I said I’d go, but I wasn’t too bothered when it was called off. Fine, I’ll go and work on the farm for a few months.
But the ARL was as weak as piss about it. They knew they were going to get hammered, so they asked us to get on the front foot in the media. I was asked to write an article in the Courier Mail to express our fears. So, I did, and it was a strong article. Then I got things like white feathers in the post. What a load of shit! We were being called everything, getting compared to people who had gone to war. Then the ARL changed their mind. “You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me,” I said. “Read what I wrote in the paper. I can’t go back on that.” I’d made a decision and then justified it strongly. So I told them to stick it up their arse.
The other senior players changed their minds, one by one, but I am stubborn. Our nation was built on people who fought at places like Gallipoli. That stuff means a lot to me. The English were all over us for not coming, and that was fair enough. I was really dark about the whole episode for a long time, but I stood by the decision because of the justification they asked us to make. I thought it was weak to go after that.
RR: A curious story arose during the 2003 tour. Was there a thief in the camp?
SW: No. The management used to give us a daily allowance, maybe 100 quid a day. It was hard to spend it because we trained so much, so there was a lot of cash lying around the rooms. I’m not alleging anything, and I never did, but a heap of cash went missing, and maybe hotel staff who weren’t well paid took it. I went to the management and told them several hundred pounds had gone missing. They refunded the money, and we were a lot more careful.
In the meantime, one particular player had quite innocently gone to buy some stuff and suddenly rumours spread that he had taken the money. People got carried away with the idea there was a thief on the tour. Because I had made the representations to the management, people were suggesting that I had accused him. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. The next year, when the Broncos played his team, we spoke about it, and I always felt sorry that he was linked with that. It was completely untrue.
RR: Did you play in the 2004 Tri-Nations final with an injury?
SW: Yes, it was the knee I mentioned earlier. Something went crunch in my knee that morning because I have no cartilage. Wayne (Bennett) desperately wanted me to play because Great Britain were on fire, and we were expecting a very tough game. The physio spent all day trying to sort this lump out. I thought I might be in trouble if it locked up, but thank God it worked out, and we had the game won by half-time. That was one of the most complete halves of footy I’ve ever seen. Benny took me off at half-time. Job done!
RR: You played in every Origin match from the start of the 1998 series to the end of 2004. Given the timing of his death, did Origin always make you think of your dad?
SW: The second game was always tough because that’s when he died in 1994. He wasn’t the sort of man who would have wanted all that wishy-washy crap about “doing it for him”. I just went out to do my best. The sadness around his passing was particularly hard around that time, especially when I first made Origin.
RR: Queensland were thrashed in game three of 2000 with people suggesting the Origin concept was dead, but you won the first game of 2001 convincingly. How did you turn things around?
SW: Wayne Bennett! He came back and did exactly what was needed. He put the broom through the joint. He brought in eleven new players and I survived the cull. He knew what needed to happen. Origin was never going to die. People only say it’s dying when New South Wales are doing well. New South Wales people lose interest when they win easily. Queensland people don’t think like that. We could win every game by 100 points and our fans would love it.
RR: How did you feel when Allan Langer was recalled for the third game?
SW: That was brilliant. Wayne said to us senior players, “Listen boys, I’ve got a radical plan. I have to get it past the QRL and the international board, but I think I can.” I’m thinking, what is he on about. Then he said, “I want to bring Alfie home.” We all said, “You beauty!” We knew Alfie would be fine. Then Wayne said, “That’s good because he’s already on the plane!” Alf got into camp, and it’s the only time I’ve ever seen him serious. He knew he couldn’t let Wayne down.
RR: Much of the Sydney media found it ridiculous that a player could come from the British competition into Origin.
SW: That doesn’t surprise me. Sydney can be very cynical about Rugby League and that’s how they think. They laugh at a radical idea. Guys like Alfie, Steve Renouf and Andrew Gee always told how much they respected English Rugby League. We had no doubts Alfie would be okay.
RR: Back at club level, you won the 2000 Grand Final against the Roosters with a broken arm. How?
SW: It was a 12-week injury, and I played after four weeks. Because it was broken, it could have become a compound fracture which could have sliced through tendons and nerves. That was the risk. It really hurt too! We stayed at Bondi before the preliminary semi-final. The great Ron Massey, who was friends with Wayne and Jack Gibson, came for breakfast with us. He could eat like no one I’ve ever seen, by the way.
Anyway, Kevvie [Walters] was captain. We all talked it through. I was worried about letting the team down and having to come off early. Typical Wayne then says, “Understand this, if you do it, it’s your decision, and if it goes bad, you have to live with it.” Gee, thanks Wayne. “But if it works, you’ll go into folklore as the bloke who played in a Grand Final with a broken arm.” He insisted I could only play in the final if I played in the preliminary first against Parramatta. Luckily, it all worked out.
RR: What do you remember of the 2001 World Club Challenge?
SW: [Grimaces] … the weather! This isn’t a cop out, but I don’t remember much about the game. I only remember the games we won!
RR: You played with several great players at the Broncos. Can you pick out a couple of unheralded players that you rated highly?
SW: Andrew Gee hurt his foot very badly on one tour and was never the same player again. He was very underrated. He held our tackling records for so long. He could do 70 a game. He was a great mentor for me. Another was Michael de Vere. He got a career through pure determination without having a huge amount of talent and he went on to play for Australia. He was unbelievable. Peter Ryan was probably underrated too – an unfashionable second-rower but tough as teak and really good to play footy with.
RR: You wrote two books. Why did you try to cancel publication of the second?
SW: I was going through a tough time and had things in my personal life going wrong. There’d been an unsavoury issue with a few Broncos players and a young lady in a toilet. I was assistant coach by now. I gave a very candid account of it for the book, but it was written six months before it was released. So it had all died down and then the book would dredge it all back up, which I realised was unfair on the players. I panicked and foolishly thought I could stop the book coming out. Of course, the moment you say you don’t want it to be released, everyone then wants to read it. People thought I did it to sell more books, but it you know me, you know I’m not capable of that. Life is not perfect, and we all bugger things up. Talking about the players was not a problem. We were all friends then and still are, but I did apologise. Ivan Henjak was the Broncos coach, and he was angry. I told him I’d resign and he agreed.
RR: You career ran almost parallel to that of Gorden Tallis. What can you tell us about him? What made the two of you write an open letter to NRL players in 2001 about off-field behaviour?
SW: During the 2000 World Cup, there had been widespread recreational drug use among some of the Australia players. I’m as anti-drugs as anyone, and I was in favour of compulsory drug testing when it was brought in. I never saw the drug use, but Gorden later brought it up in a newspaper, which was very courageous. He knew it had happened. We went to Wayne, who suggested the open letter. Someone drafted it and we put our names to it. We didn’t want to see our game and our mates go down that path.
I’m proud we did that and I really admired Gorden for what he did. People hammered us for not naming names, but that wasn’t the point. We just wanted to highlight it was becoming a problem, as it was in wider society. We had to make a stance. Rugby League in Australia – we cop it all the time, but it’s a very honest game. We air our dirty laundry, and we’re not afraid to admit when we bugger it up. Gorden’s attitude was to get it out there, so it could be fixed.
Gorden is one of the great men. I love blokes with conviction and morals. And he was a hell of a good footballer. When he put the foot down, he was unbelievable. He will always be a good mate.
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