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In the first instalment of our new regular feature of League Unlimited interviews, resident Leaguie Matt Starkey has a chat with newly appointed Queensland coach Mal Meninga.
Starkers: First of all, congratulations on being appointed as coach of the Queensland State of Origin team.
Big Mal: Thankyou, I?m looking forward to it.
Starkers: You started your career at Brisbane Souths as an 18 year old in 1979 and went on to represent Queensland in the interstate match against New South Wales. Tell us about those early days.
Big Mal: : I had a wonderful time there under Wayne Bennett and it was a good learning opportunity to achieve what I did later in my career. It gave me a good grounding in my formative years. Back then Souths was predominantly a police boys club and we ended up playing in six grand finals.
Starkers: The following year you kicked 7 goals from as many attempts in the first ever State of Origin match. You must have some fond memories of that game?
Big Mal: : To be quite honest, the game went that quick that I can?t remember too much about it. It was my 20th birthday and the ball just came off the boot particularly well.
Starkers: Did you ever think back then that Origin would become the pinnacle of Rugby League?
Big Mal: : I don?t know that it?s the pinnacle. I think there are three things in rugby league that you can achieve that are the peak and obviously one of them is State of Origin. The others are playing for your country and winning a grand final. It?s right up there but back in those times it was just fantastic that we got a win over NSW.
Starkers: You then went on to amass a staggering State of Origin record: 32 games, 6 tries, 69 goals for 161 points. Is that something you look back on with pride or did you feel you were just putting in for your state?
Big Mal: : You don?t really think about those sorts of things. All you?re really worried about is making a contribution to the side. My focus really was just to be selected and do the best job I possibly can in a Maroon jersey.
Starkers: Do you have any general ill-feelings towards New South Welshmen?
Big Mal: : No, it?s just about having a competitive nature, that?s why we play the game. Anytime we play someone in a blue jersey that was a great honour. Some of those guys we played against in Origin we ended up playing with for Australia or again at club level. There are no feelings of malice or anything like that.
Starkers: You joined Canberra in 1986, was it hard to adjust to a colder climate?
Big Mal: : Not for me it wasn?t. I played a season for St Helens in 1984-85 and I quite enjoyed it. The cold wasn?t the thing that troubled me, but getting used to playing in a hard and fast Sydney competition week-in, week-out certainly took some getting used to.
Starkers: You broke your arm several times, including hitting the upright at Seiffert Oval one time. Was it a personal struggle combating the injuries towards the end of the 80?s?
Big Mal: : It?s always a struggle where you want to play all the time. It was a very frustrating time. But in hindsight it was probably a good learning experience for when I would come back from injury. I would train harder and become more mentally prepared and that helped me with things like the leadership of the team.
Starkers: Did you ever consider giving the game away due to your injuries?
Big Mal: : No, never. I always wanted to play. The media speculated a lot but in my mind that was never going to happen and I always tried to come back and hopefully be a better player.
Starkers: Do you feel the injuries lengthened your career?
Big Mal: : No, some people say that but I never felt that way. For me it was all about passion for the game, which is why we play in the first place. That?s part of the reason I gave it away in 1994. I felt I had started to lose a bit of that passion.
Starkers: You lost to Manly in the 1987 Grand Final. Did this drive you to success in 1989?
Big Mal: : There were a number of factors. The self belief within the club was high after making the 1987 Grand Final and we all began to believe in one another a lot more. We also had an influx of younger players ? Daley, Clyde, Stuart, Lazarus and Steve Walters began to come along in his game. We arrived at a really good era where all the younger players emerged and the seasoned players mixed very well with them.
Starkers: Any anecdotes about dropping the Winfield Cup after 1989 Grand Final?
Big Mal: : It was an accident. It did get broken but I can assure you there were a few dints and cracks in that trophy when we got it. We were in the back of a Vee-Dub and Laurie Daley was supposed to be taking care of it. The Vee-Dub stopped suddenly and the trophy wasn?t properly secured and ended up falling out the back of the car. It was a very heavy piece and like I said it wasn?t in great nick when we got hold of it.
Starkers: What gave you more of a buzz - winning in extra time in the 1989 Grand Final or scoring the winning try at Old Trafford in 1990 to keep the Test series alive against Great Britain.
Big Mal: : 1989 was very special. We were the first club out outside Sydney to win and particularly for me with the broken arm that year it was hard to beat. As for the Ashes, that was more relief. We would have been the first team in 20-odd years to lose a Test series to the Poms and I remember after scoring that try and then going on to retain the Ashes in the third game it was just a huge relief. It was a very strong Great Britain side as well.
Starkers: Did you ever contemplate losing the Ashes in 1990 and the sort of ramifications it might have?
Big Mal: : No, it was more just fulfilling the expectations placed upon us as a team and relieving the pressure placed upon us. Australia is a nation that is linked to success in sport and people expected us to win no matter what the odds were.
Starkers: Winning in 1990 against the Panthers gave you two premierships in a row but there were some tough times in those days with the salary cap at Canberra. What did the victory give the club, supporters and the Canberra region?
Big Mal: : Well, we were forging ahead as a club and becoming the yardstick in the competition. We were going through an innovative stage as a club as well. When the salary cap was developed it was obviously difficult to fit in so many players but it galvanised us as a club. Tim Sheens was preparing the team exceptionally well for each game and he was an absolute professional as a coach and he really taught us a lot as a unit.
Starkers: What are your thoughts on losing in 1991 to Penrith?
Big Mal: : They were extraordinary circumstances. I was pretty proud of the club and the way we went. We had a lot of injuries and dramas at the club with the salary cap and I thought it was a great achievement for the club to even make the Grand Final under those circumstances.
Starkers: You smashed Terry Lamb in the 1994 Grand Final, rendering him almost useless after about 20 minutes. Was this in anyway payback for Lamb knocking out Ellery Hanley in the 1988 Grand Final?
Big Mal: : Not from my point of view. There was certainly no malice intended. But fate works in funny ways in Rugby League. It might have been ironic from a Canterbury point of view but it holds no real meaning from my end. I just thought I got him in a good tackle and just the way we were playing that day and that year I don?t think anyone was going to get us.
Starkers: You had a dream finish to your club career, scoring the last try in the 1994 Grand Final. How did you feel when you crossed the stripe?
Big Mal: : It was actually a goal of mine. In all the Grand Finals I?d played in I hadn?t scored a try before and it was great to get one and being the last try of the day was also special. It was quite exciting for me to achieve it the way it happened to pan out.
Starkers: You brought down the curtain on your Australian Test career also by scoring the last try at Beizers (France) when you trounced the French 74-0 upon completing your 4th Kangaroo Tour. How did that compare to the Grand Final?
Big Mal: : Pretty extraordinary year for me considering the success we had at club level, we won the Pre-season Cup and the Grand Final, missed out on the Origin though. And then to go away and play for your country and to retire on my terms gave me a great sense of satisfaction and achievement. The try at Beizers was the icing on the cake.
Starkers: Personally, what do you consider the biggest achievement in your career?
Big Mal: : Just to be a survivor in a very competitive environment and to last for a long time. But also to retire on my own terms. You see a lot of players leaving the game through various ways and for me to be able to go out the way I wanted makes me feel very lucky.
Starkers: Whilst your career at club, state and country is almost without peer, you never managed to captain a Queensland State of Origin team to victory in a series. Is this your one regret?
Big Mal: : Yes, I would have loved to have done that. But it?s not a perfect world and I couldn?t manage it. In all honesty though, I?ve now got another opportunity to do this as coach and it present me with an opportunity to find redemption for not winning as a captain and it will assist in helping those regretful feeling fade a little.
Starkers: Who had the biggest influence over your career?
Big Mal: : I had different influences at different stages, firstly with my Mum and Dad as a kid. They taught me values in life and got me on the straight and narrow. Then Wayne Bennett came along at the right time and introduced a lot of the mental side of preparation to a game. Then Tim Sheens taught me a lot about the game in terms of strategy and how to break a game down. Then Bob Fulton was also a great coach who taught me a bit about leadership and companionship with your mates in the game.
Starkers: Who was the toughest player you ever played with and against?
Big Mal: : They?re all tough. I don?t like to single any player out in this question. I think Rugby League is a very tough sport and to have the courage just to play the game means you?ve got to be tough.
Starkers: Who was the best player you ever played with and against?
Big Mal: : I played with a lot of great players, but Wally Lewis would have to be up there. Just the way he went about dominating Origin football and the way he played in that arena was outstanding.
Starkers: You began your coaching career at Canberra in 1997 and it lasted 5 seasons. How do you view your time at the Raiders in terms of success?
Big Mal: : It was a happy time for me and a good learning curve. We made the semi?s 3 times and I learnt plenty of skills as coach and not just about the game. I learnt how to cope with stress and adversity in what was really a rebuilding phase we were going through down at the Raiders.
Starkers: What was it like taking the Prime Ministers XIII to Papua New Guinea and rekindling your coaching career? What do you think of Brad Fittler (your assistant coach) and his prospects for coaching in the future?
Big Mal: : I didn?t do much coaching really. The players involved were very well prepared but the cause was more about what Rugby League in general can do for people over there. The players were ambassadors and were helping to spread a good message over there about HIV/AIDS and also the treatment of women.
As for Freddie, you?d probably have to speak to him about his coaching future. I know he does a few things here and there with the Roosters, but the one thing Freddie has on his side is the respect of the players, which is huge in terms of coaching.
Starkers: Will you reflect upon you time coaching at the Raiders when you take up your position for Queensland next year?
Big Mal: : I?ll obviously bring those experiences with me, but I?ll also learn a bit more and take that on board. I?ll go back to the drawing board in some respects but it?s something I?m very much looking forward to.
Starkers: Your political career famously lasted 28 seconds after you quit during an on-air interview in 2001. Is this something you now look back on and have a bit of a chuckle?
Big Mal: : (chuckles) I actually give myself a pat on the back for what I did there. It?s something that I?ve maintained throughout my life that you?ve got to be fair and honest with yourself and your job. I was going to run for the Member of ACT but I realised that I?d rather do something outside politics to make a difference in the community because that?s where I felt I would be best.
Starkers: What was it like belting Mark ?Jacko? Jackson in the Charity boxing match a few years back?
Big Mal: : Well, it?s better than being on the other end (laughs). Once again it?s a very hard sport and I admire anyone who gets in the ring to fight. But we were helping out a youth suicide cause ?Fight for Life? and I was actually very humbled and proud to be part of it.
Starkers: Are you in good shape for the Legends of League match? Are you looking forward to getting back on the paddock?
Big Mal: : Not really in good shape. I had a look at myself in the mirror the other day and it wasn?t real pretty. But once again it?s something for charity and we?ll get together and have a good time and catch up with some old mates.