Rugby League Heroes: Tim Sheens

Grand Finals and World Cups – the coach who won them all

A Penrith junior, Tim Sheens played and coached the club throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

He moved to Canberra, where he coached the Raiders to the only three Premierships they have ever won.

After a spell at North Queensland, he won another Grand Final with Wests Tigers before leading Australia to World Cup success in 2013.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

All the Grand Finals were great, but one of my best moments was beating Manly in 1985 in a play-off to reach the semi-finals when I was coach of Penrith. The team was nicknamed the Chocolate Soldiers because they would always melt, but we finished equal fifth with Manly, so we played off to see who faced Parramatta in the semi-finals. It was the first time the club had done it since their formation in 1967. It meant so much to the district, to the team, and also to me as someone who had played for the club for so long.

Tell us about your great uncle, Joe Regent, who was caught up in one of Rugby League’s biggest controversies in 1909.

Balmain were one of the original clubs in 1908 who came over from rugby union and he played in their first game against Wests. His people were French. His father was a sailor, and they came to Balmain. I have a photo of him and in 2008 I was given a medal when Wests Tigers wanted to track down relatives of all the 1908 original players. It gave me a buzz to realise he had played in the very first game – and I was coaching Wests 100 years later!
The 1909 story is that both Grand Finalists agreed not to play because they were upset at it being a curtain-raiser to one of the Kangaroos-Wallabies exhibition matches, but then Souths turned up, kicked off and were handed the match by default.

You played for Penrith between 1970 and 1982. Two of your team-mates were the British forwards Bill Ashurst and Mike Stephenson. What do you remember of them?

I know them both well and talk to them quite often. They both had an imprint on my life, they taught me a lot and they were both such interesting personalities. People said they hated each other, but they didn’t.
Billy was such a natural talent who could still play today, a bit like Phil Lowe. He was also the first round-the-corner goalkicker – people think it was John Gray, but it was Billy. Stevo was a running hooker, probably the first in Australia. Every other hooker’s approach was win the scrum and pass off the ground, but Stevo had more. He coached us for a while too and I still use things that Mike showed me.

Was coaching always an ambition?

No, I never thought about it. I did law, moved into real estate and didn’t finish the law degree. I just played football as an addendum to my job.

Why did you leave Penrith for Canberra in 1988?

The Panthers had no money. Greg Alexander, Mark Geyer and John Cartwright were only on pay-as-you-play deals, but the club said they’d have money in a few years, and they’d sign Wally Lewis and put him on the bench if I wanted. In my first year as coach [1984], we lost the last game and missed the semi-finals. Then we did it in the second year. We flattened out a bit in 1986, then I told the club that 1987 would be my last year because I wasn’t learning anything, and we didn’t have the money to buy players.
Canberra were coached by Wayne Bennett and Don Furner, and they’d beaten us in pre-season. I was impressed with them. The journalist Tony Adams introduced me to John McIntyre, and we did the deal halfway through 1987.

The Raiders had made the Grand Final the year before you joined. What sort of squad did you inherit?

It was a good side – Mal Meninga, Gary Belcher, Mark Coyne, Dean Lance the captain, John Ferguson, Sam Backo, Steve Walters and the rest. In the wings coming through were Brad Clyde, Glenn Lazarus, Laurie Daley and Brett Mullins. Don had done so well with the recruitment, and he’d also bought Wayne in. When Brisbane Broncos came into the competition in 1988, Wayne went to coach them and I was surprised Mal and Gary didn’t go with him, but it was great for the Raiders that they didn’t.

The 1989 Grand Final is regarded as one of the all-time great matches. Can you still remember the big moments like Ben Elias’s field-goal attempt, Meninga’s ankle tap and the tries by John Ferguson and Steve Jackson as they happened?

You don’t forget moments like that, especially as the game is talked about so much. We played well in the first half, but two bounces of the ball beat us. I didn’t think the scoreline reflected what had happened, but I knew we needed to score next. Perhaps Balmain eased off. Once we got points on the board, momentum switched, and they were just trying to hold on. Benny hit the crossbar with the field goal attempt. Warren Ryan withdrew the two guys [Steve Roach and Paul Sironen] because that’s what he used to do.
The players loved to attack, and we used to recruit attacking players because that’s the most important part of the game – other coaches will say defence is, but not me. Before extra-time, the first thing I said to Ricky [Stuart] was to kick, kick and continue to kick. It wasn’t golden point, but it was all about field position. Ricky was great at kicking the leather ball. Garry Jack dropped one of his kicks and we went ahead with the field goal. Jackson’s try sealed it and it was sensational. Like the commentators, I thought he would be pulled down, but he was a blockbusting player and he just kept going and scored.

How did you approach the subsequent World Club Challenge against Widnes?

It was played about a week after the Grand Final, and I couldn’t find any players! They were all drunk. We weren’t training and there were no mobile phones then. Some of the guys had jobs and couldn’t go overseas.
I remember us getting off to a good start in the game and then we had a try called forward which would have taken us away. My assistant coach then said we’re in trouble because Brad Clyde was walking. We hit a wall after 20 minutes. It was an early concept, and we didn’t give it the respect it gets now, but Widnes were a great side.

You coached the Blues in the 1991 State of Origin series when every game was decided by just two points.

Taking on Wally Lewis’s last series with two games at Lang Park was coaching suicide, but I’d won two Grand Finals and I was pretty confident.
It rained so heavily in game two. When you go 1-0 down, one team wants to win the second game, but one team has to win – and that was us. Mark McGaw scored at the end and Michael O’Connor kicked the goal from the sideline to win us the match. It was around the corner against the grain, but he got it.
Mark Geyer didn’t play in the third, which didn’t help, and we went down by two points, but it was a great series. There were a lot of politics in the game then and I lost the job to Gus [Gould]. With Wally gone, NSW gained the ascendancy.

How much pleasure did the 1994 Premiership give you?

A lot, because I considered the 1994 side to be mine as opposed to Don’s. There was a big salary-cap problem in 1991, which emerged when I was in Origin camp. We had to shed so many players like Wayne Collins, Glenn Lazarus, Brent Todd, David Barnhill, Mark Bell and Matthew Wood.
We had a chance in 1993, but Ricky broke his ankle badly. I felt we were always going to win it in 1994. We weren’t Minor Premiers, but we were still confident.

Why did you leave Canberra for North Queensland?

I’d done nine years at Canberra and thought it was time to go. The game had got up to 20 and then 22 teams without enough players of the right quality. The strong teams stayed strong. One of the biggest problems was recruiting, because New Zealand is nearer to Sydney than Townsville is.
Super League put up borders, so you couldn’t recruit from other areas, and we only had from Rockhampton up. There are more Kangaroos than people in Rockhampton! The Cowboys put up a fight and the legacy I left wasn’t just players like Matthew Bowen, John Doyle and John Buttigieg playing for Queensland, but the fact the club was still there, unlike many others that were cut or had to merge.

Your next port of call was the Tigers where you won your fourth Grand Final in 2005. Talk us through Pat Richards’ try, set up by Benji Marshall’s flicked pass.

We didn’t have a team bus during the semis – the players drove to the games in their own cars. When I suggested a bus for the final, the players blew up and said we should keep the things the same, so I was at the ground waiting for the players and they were casually walking in, signing autographs. That’s how relaxed they were!
St George-Illawarra and Parramatta were tipped to get to the final, but we beat St George and Brisbane, and North Queensland beat Parra. We both had an open style of football, but I was confident, and I’ve never seen so much orange and black in the crowd as that night.
As for the try, most people don’t realise Benji was on the wing in defence, which was why he was in the corner for the kick. I always thought he’d make a fullback, especially with the modern fullback being a third halfback. Pat had moved to centre in defence and chased Benji down the field in support. It was an extraordinary try, especially for a Grand Final.

You were coach of Australia between 2009 and 2015.

It was such a privilege, but I was disappointed for Ricky [Stuart] who had lost the job. I didn’t apply for the job – Geoff Carr from the ARL called me. I’d done City-Country as well as the 1997 Super League Tri-Series, which included the longest game of Rugby League when NSW beat Queensland.
Anyway, I loved the job. We did lose a couple of Four Nations Finals to New Zealand but winning the World Cup in 2013 was the big one because the Kiwis had been world champions for five years. After the opening game, we didn’t concede a try in the tournament, and in the final we kept a great New Zealand side tryless.

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.