Ash Hope continues his series of interviews with former winners of the Albert Goldthorpe Medal. This week he speaks to former Catalans Dragons star Scott Dureau, who won the Medal in 2012, but more recently has been fighting a battle against cancer.
Scott Dureau wasn’t going to be defined by cancer the first time, nor the second.
He certainly wasn’t going to be defined by the hardships of life, the mental and physical demands of twice having being told he had brain cancer.
It was a routine check-up, in 2018, that gave the former Newcastle and Catalans halfback the most difficult test of his life, being told it could end in as little as two years’ time.
Positive against adversity
Some six years before, he had beaten the disease and returned to his playing career with the Dragons. This time, the news would be far more heart-breaking, as it had spread to his liver.
The 33-year-old is not wavering from positivity, however, spreading his resilience to the Newcastle Knights Academy players as their coach.
He returned to work with the club only last week, following the COVID-19 lockdown rules being relaxed in Australia.
“I had to self-isolate a month earlier, because my immune system is considerably weaker,” Dureau explains.
“It was frustrating to have to pull out of work and shut down quickly, but you have to be positive. I don’t think that sitting down and feeling sorry for myself helps, mainly for the sake of my two young daughters.
“I’m not worried about what might happen; you don’t get anything out of that. If they tell me there’s a 20 per cent chance of me surviving, well I say I’m going to be part of that 20 per cent.
“I was told, when I was younger that I was never going to be an NRL player and I was too small and I made that happen.”
Stepping into big shoes
In his early rugby career, having to show that resilience was self-evident from the start. Although short in stature, Dureau showed the bravery to step up to try to fill the newly vacated number 7 jersey at Newcastle Knights.
The man before him, Andrew Johns, is widely considered one of the greatest players in the world of Rugby League. Dureau knew he had to stand tall if he was going to make a name for himself.
“It was big shoes to fill and there was always that stigma,” he added.
“I didn’t feel that I had to play like him, because there’s nobody like him.
“Having said that, there was pretty heavy media scrutiny on me and the team when he retired, but it was all good for me in terms of building my character and resilience that probably got me through my career.”
The halfback remained at the Knights between 2007 and 2010, having proved the doubters wrong that he was able to perform at the level, even if not holding down a regular place in the side.
His next move was far more adventurous, leaving behind the club he supported as a child to head for Catalans Dragons.
Dureau was reunited with his former Knights Academy coach Trent Robinson after Robinson had just been appointed in his first head-coaching job.
NRL legend Steve Menzies headlined the club’s recruitment drive, while internationals Damien Blanch, Lopini Paea and Ian Henderson all added to a reliable Antipodean contingent.
They were all factors that made Perpignan feel a little more like home, for Dureau, but there was one considerable difference.
“It was a real contrast in pressure for me,” he said.
“I couldn’t understand the papers and what they were saying and that was what I needed.
“There were other options in the NRL and Super League, but Trent had coached me at Newcastle and I knew he would get the best out of me.
“I remember Robbo just saying it’s my team to lead and I was the main halfback. That just freed me up to play stress-free and the players all felt the same.
“Having the Australian guys over there was great, because they were going through the same thing.
“All our partners were able to get together and become friends. We had training for the players’ comradeship but the club was very good at integrating the families together.
“For the first year, we all lived together in the same complex and then we stayed close to each other despite moving apart.”
In Dureau’s first season in 2011, Catalans rose to sixth having finished bottom of Super League the previous year.
In the next season, their rapid development saw them climb to fourth, with Dureau being selected in the Super League Dream Team in both his first two years.
He was also awarded the prestigious Albert Goldthorpe Medal in 2012 and he looks back fondly on that time period.
“2011 and 2012 were definitely the best years of my career.
“I played nearly every league and cup game in 2012, plus the Exiles games, so I was up to 40 games.
“It was just an enjoyable year for me. I never played the game for individual accolades, but to be voted in the Dream Team by my peers and, for the Albert Goldthorpe Medal, as the best player by the press was something special for me.”
During the off-season of 2012, Dureau would experience a huge contrast of emotions, after being diagnosed with a brain tumour and having surgery in January 2013 to remove it successfully.
“My world got turned upside down,” he admits.
“But Catalans stood by me and looked after me.
“They got me the best medical treatment in France. Christophe Jouffret (Catalans Dragons CEO) came to see me in hospital, in Australia, and that was a big thing for me and my family.”
Dureau eventually recovered from that surgery and made his return to the side in a 46-18 mauling of London Broncos at the Magic Weekend, scoring a try in a hugely emotional outing.
“It was a whirlwind; I’d been training for a month before that and then a medical specialist cleared me that week to actually play.
“It was a great experience, to come back and play in Magic Weekend was very emotional. I definitely had times, before that, where I thought I’d never play again.”
He played a further nine games that season and even found himself being considered for World Cup selection later in the year, not by his native Australia, but France.
The national team had called on the Dragons’ Australian duo Justin Murphy and John Wilson to represent them in the 2008 tournament, while Dureau’s former team-mate Clint Greenshields did the same in 2013.
Dureau was asked to represent Les Tricolores and, despite the fact his name descends from French ancestors with the name ‘Dureaux,’ he politely declined the Federation’s advances.
“They tried to convince me and did everything they could,” Dureau said.
“But it didn’t sit right with me.
“I took on a bit of a leadership role at Catalans and I thought about the young French players. There was William Barthau and I wouldn’t have wanted to stop his development in the national team, when I wasn’t French.
“I would have missed the first game of the World Cup, as well, because it would have been just on three years that I would have arrived in the country.
“Those young French guys would have played with more passion than me anyway and that’s what the national team should be about.”
He passed on the opportunity and instead focused on having a well-structured off-season to return to playing regularly in the 2014 campaign.
That wouldn’t eventuate for Dureau, after he suffered a torn bicep in his first game of the season, a 32-6 loss to Castleford, and was ruled out for the rest of the season.
The Dragons de-registered him and brought in Sam Williams from St George, but Dureau’s return from injury was quicker than expected.
Trent Robinson caught wind and offered a reuniting at Sydney Roosters, as Dureau joined on a loan deal to help understudy the club’s halfback.
“I’d been in contact with Trent and he gave me the opportunity to be the back-up halfback for Mitchell Pearce,” he said.
“I took on a kind of mentoring role there and Robbo actually offered me a job as part of his coaching staff when I left.
“But I just had the itch to go back to Catalans and repay their faith. It was a difficult decision but I turned Robbo down.
“I then played the whole year there and decided to call it a day. It was important for me to go back but I knew when enough was enough.”
Dureau did just that and featured 27 times, in the 2015 season, as the club budged their way into the top eight, in the first edition of the Super 8s format.
The Australian then chose to retire from the sport, having repaid the Dragons’ faith, taking an Academy coaching role at Newcastle and going full circle.
Mentoring the young players was no unfamiliar territory for Dureau, having done so previously at Catalans and Sydney Roosters, as the club supported his development as a coach.
That support was pivotal when his world was turned upside down again, in 2018, with his second diagnosis. But his spirits never dropped throughout that time, and he hopes that the Academy players can look to him for inspiration.
“The club was very supportive of me when I got the second diagnosis,” Dureau said.
“They put on a charity night, with the Men of League charity, to pay for my expensive surgeries.
“My role is to coach and mentor them as young men as well as footballers. If they take some positives from me then that’s a bonus.”
With the Academy season cancelled in Australia, because of the Coronavirus, Dureau’s attention has turned to planning for the 2021 season.
That will be a year that doctors told him he might not even be alive to see. If he does, it will be a true testament of his willpower and progress in Scott Dureau’s battle against cancer.