Interview with Wayne Pearce

Here it is Tigers fans!'s intrepid writer Daniel Ramus sits down and has a good old chin-wag with Balmain?s favourite son Wayne Pearce. They chat about detached retinas, hepatitis, beer can throwing, the Wok, meningitis, Ellery?s chin in ?88, knee reconstructions, extra time in ?89, falling off horses, the Tigers 2005 premiership and what Junior?s doing these days for a crust.

You better buckle up, this one goes for a while!

Rammo: You started out playing for the Balmain Police Boys junior club, could you tell us a bit about those early days?

Junior: I guess my inspiration for playing rugby league was the Tigers? premiership victory in 1969. I was a nine year-old. Myself, and my two young brothers were pumped up so we signed up and started playing the next season for the Balmain Police Boys.

Rammo: After being graded with the Balmain juniors in 1978, a severe bout of hepatitis threatened your career in its early stages. This would have been a tough way to start things off.

Junior: Yeah, it was pretty tough. I was studying at university at the time and playing junior football as well. I got a bad cut in a game playing for the NSW Under 18s against Queensland. In those days they had the old bucket and sponge, they didn?t have the spray like they do these days, they sponged down the wound over my eye. Inadvertently the virus got into my bloodstream and 6 weeks later I became really crook. I was knocked around for the next 6 months, lost a lot of weight and was lucky to play rugby league again. On the upside, the good thing is, as a result of what happened to me, the governing sports medicine associations put a ban on the bucket and sponge and nowadays the bottles are used which are much more hygienic.

Rammo: You were named as the best and fairest player for the Tigers in 1980. This was obviously a great way to begin your first grade career.

Junior: Yeah it was a big plus because my only grade experience before I came into First Grade as a 19-year old in 1980, was when I came off the bench late in 1979 and played two Under 23 games, as they were then. That was my only grade experience. In the off-season, the first grade incumbent lock at the time, Neil Pringle, suffered a really bad virus in that off-season and they were looking for a lock. They threw me into the first grade training squad and I started first grade the next season. I had a pretty good year, made the City representative team, and at the end of the year I was given the best and fairest award for the club which was a real honour.

Rammo: In 1981 you suffered a detached retina, delaying the start to your season. Was that one of the worst injuries you ever had?

Junior: That was without doubt the most frightening injury I ever had. I got poked in the eye during a game and basically I was blinded straight away as a result of that. I went to hospital and I had to lie still for a couple of days while the blood cleared up so they could actually look inside the eye, or until the blood cleared so they could see what damage was done. A couple of days later they examined the eye and saw that it was detached so I had to have an operation, not knowing at that stage whether I?d play rugby league again. As it turned out though, the operation was a success and I ended up playing a lot more years of footy.

Rammo: You had a stellar end to 1981 and an excellent follow-up year in ?82 resulting in selection on the Kangaroo tour at the conclusion of that season. Can you describe the feeling of pulling on the Green and Gold for the first time?

Junior: I can remember standing there at the start of the Test match, listening to the national anthem and I had tears streaming down my face because to me it was a very emotional time. It was the culmination of a childhood dream to play for Australia, and I was fortunate to have a good game and I was named player of the match.

Rammo: What was it like playing in the U.K.? What were the conditions and the quality of opposition like?

Junior: The touring side of 1982 was the first side to go away and come back undefeated. We had a really successful tour. People talked about the quality of the opposition being pretty ordinary, and yes, by the standards of Australian rugby league they were a lot inferior. They were skilful players but they just didn?t match the speed at which we played the game. We went on and won all the test matches and club matches and went over to France to also win the games over there. It was a fantastic experience, the grounds were quite heavy, very different to play on but they actually suit my game because I had pretty good leg strength, and it helped my speed over the ground. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

Rammo: What are your lasting memories of England?

Junior: Just the great hospitality and the friendly people over there. I really liked the atmosphere, the people over there really embraced us as foreigners. We stayed at a pub in Leeds called The Hilton. It was an experience that taught me to come out of my shell as a person and as a footballer. The Kangaroo tours do a lot for people, not just because of their growth as a football player but as a person as well.

Rammo: You won the Harry Sunderland medal at the end of 1984 for best player in the Ashes series. This must have been quite an honour for you.

Junior: It was a great honour. You don?t go out there to win awards, but I did have a pretty good series that year, winning Man of the Match in two of the three tests. I was then awarded the Harry Sunderland Medal which was a real honour, the magnitude of it didn?t really sink in at the time and it probably wasn?t until a few years later that I looked back and realised what it meant.

Rammo: Injury was a familiar foe throughout your career, and you suffered another detached retina during the minor semi-final in 1985 against Parramatta. You were awarded the Rothmans Medal for best and fairest player in the same season, this must have been a nice consolation after missing the majority of the semi-final through injury.

Junior: This was another tremendous honour. In my opinion, the Rothmans Medal is the highest accolade any player can receive. That and the Players? Player award, which are both voted by your peers, are the two greatest individual honours the game has to offer. Being voted the player of the season, during what was then the ARL competition, was a real big honour, it was some consolation for not playing in the finals series, but I really wanted to play the big games because I was the club captain for the Tigers.

Rammo: In 1986 you led the NSW side to the first ever clean-sweep in origin history in an incredibly tight series. What memories can you recall from that series?

Junior: Just the fact that the matches in the series were all very close. It was a fantastic achievement the previous year to win our first Origin series ever against Queensland, something which I was also proud to be a part of. To go on and win 3-0 the next year went to the next level yet again. The contests were anything but easy, all the matches went down to the wire. We managed to come up on the right side of the ledger each time, the speed of the matches was phenomenal, the series could have gone either way, Queensland could have just as easily won 3-0 because there were only a couple of points in each game.

Rammo: You were omitted from the 1986 Kangaroo Tour following a knee injury and there was a bit of controversy surrounding your non-selection. Please tell us a bit about that.

Junior: I actually ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament, which is the main ligament of the knee in the 3rd Test against the Kiwis which was in July. The initial diagnosis didn?t look too good, but I had a subsequent diagnosis and an operation from a surgeon by the name of Merv Cross who was considered the number one knee surgeon in Australia at the time. He had a chat to me and said that the way I ruptured it, was the best possible way I could rupture it if I wanted to get back playing as quickly as possible. He said that provided I was prepared to put the physiotherapy and effort in, that I could be right to play on the Kangaroo tour. I was doing 3 to 4 hours a day of physiotherapy and rehab work, and he was astounded at how quickly my knee recovered. For some strange reason it never happened before. Prior to their selection of the team I was asked to go and participate in a fitness test. I went along there and the League Doctor had not even spoken to Merv Cross who?s the expert, to find out what shape my knee was in. They put me through a ridiculous test that went on and on. They were just trying to look for a way to rule me out. Les Davidson and Martin Bella were tackling me in the fitness test, both of them said that my knee was fine. Anyway, the League Doctor at the time found reason to rule me out, it shattered my belief in the system at the time.

Rammo: In 1988 you suffered viral meningitis. How long did the recovery process take?

Junior: That was a pretty ordinary experience as well. It knocked me around and made me very weak. It probably took me a good four or five weeks to recover fully from that. I got back on the playing paddock after two or three weeks but the first couple of games back I felt very weak, and it?s not a very nice illness to get. It was once again another opportunity for me to come back after a setback or hurdle.

Rammo: You were involved in the infamous incident at Lang Park in 1988 where Maroons captain Wally Lewis was sent to the sin bin. The crowd started throwing cans of beer onto the field. Fellow New South Welshman Mark McGaw even asked you if the Blues should have left the field. What can you remember from that night?

Junior: It was a pretty tough game. The game was delicately poised when Wally was sent from the field. The crowd just erupted because they were so parochial up there in those days, they?re still fanatical now but they were even worse back then, and they started showering the field with cans and bottles. I remember Mark McGaw coming over to me and saying ?Junior, the cricketers went off, so are we going to go off?? I said ?No mate, just go back out there, take a deep breath and we?ll get through it.? The crowd settled down, security came on and cleared the bottles, then we got on with the game. It was a bit intimidating but any experience of playing at Lang Park (now Suncorp Stadium) is different to playing anywhere else because the crowd is just so passionate and a lot more emotional than at other grounds.

Rammo: You captained Balmain in the 1988 grand final against Canterbury. Unfortunately you went down that day by 24 points to 12. Obviously the Ellery Hanley incident was the main talking point from this match. How did you see the incident and the game in general?

Junior: At the time I didn?t have a real good view of when the incident occurred, so I didn?t realise how bad it was until I looked back at video replay of it. It was very ordinary and there should have been a lot more action taken. It did cost us dearly in that game because I remember personally making a break not long after that on the right hand side of the field where Ellery plays in the centres. I came to the fullback looking for support and it would have been a try but there was no one there, and Ellery would have been there for sure. It was certainly a big blow to our chances of winning. Although, in 1988, we came from a difficult position to go through a playoff to get into the final, and through to the Grand Final. So I suppose making the Grand Final in itself was a big achievement. The bigger blow was the next year in 1989 when we lost in extra-time.

Rammo: As you say there, you were also captain of the 1989 grand final side. This game will go down as one of, if not the greatest grand final in the history of the game. Balmain led 12-2 at halftime but were run down by Canberra, losing 19-14 in extra time. I would imagine that this would be quite tough to talk about but what can you remember from grand final day in 1989?

Junior: It?s a bit of a blur to be perfectly honest. In fact, both grand finals were a bit of a blur because the games were so emotional and so fast, that the specifics of it, sort of elude you to a certain degree. I suppose we tried to wipe 1989 from our memories to a large extent as well, because it was back to back losing grand finals. When you put it in the context that we were 10 points up at halftime, leading 12-2, it was hard to fathom the loss. My memories of the game that particularly stand out were the fact that we had so many things that went against us. We had three or four scoring chances that were snuffed out by some good Raiders defence and some questionable options from us. Also a field goal attempt from Benny Elias that hit the crossbar, it couldn?t have come any closer. I guess it just wasn?t meant to be.

Rammo: At the end of the match, you were quoted as saying ?It was disappointing, unbelievably depressing, I ached.? Do you think the fact that you lost the ball close to the line with a try-scoring opportunity beckoning had anything to do with these feelings? Or was it just a reflection of the overall pain in losing a grand final that the side had ample opportunities to win?

Junior: Yeah well for years and years I was disappointed with the fact that I dropped the ball. I?m not sure whether I would have scored the try but I would have been a chance of a try. For the first time ever, about 12 months ago, I had a look at the replay with a few other players and I saw that it was a fairly poor pass which I had received. It was way above my head, and it made me feel a lot better to be perfectly honest (laughs). I guess the fact that I knew I was coming towards the end of my career, and the fact that I?d played in two consecutive grand finals without a win, I was doubtful whether I?d get that chance again. That was probably why I felt so devastated.

Rammo: What was your take on Warren Ryan substituting strike forwards Steve Roach and Paul Sironen, and replacing them with defensive players Kevin Hardwick and Michael Pobjie late in the 89? grand final?

Junior: It?s easy to be wise after the event, and say it was a silly thing to do. At the time Warren believed that we had a strong enough lead, I think we were 10 points in front, so he decided to close up shop and put a couple of defensive players on there. I suppose on the other side of the coin, Canberra saw two of our internationals leave the field, and in those days once a player went off he couldn?t come back on. They knew that Roachy (Steve Roach) and Siro (Paul Sironen) had a bit of size and experience so they probably lifted another gear.

Rammo: What did you think of Warren Ryan as a coach? Who would you rate as the best coach in your career?

Junior: There?s no doubt that Warren Ryan was a good coach, an astute tactician. He?s had a great deal of success. In terms of the influence on my career, and my development, the best coach I played under would be Frank Stanton. He coached me at the Tigers for a few years and on the Kangaroo tour when we went through undefeated in 1982. He was a very good tactician and a very good communicator, also a great motivator.

Rammo: You were forced to retire prematurely at the end of 1990 due to injury, playing just 7 games that season, and 192 in your career for Balmain. Do you look back on your career with frustration given that you could have played for a few more years if it weren?t for some of those injuries?

Junior: Yes and no. We could all be greedy and say that we?d like to have played for a few more years, but I was really happy I played 11 seasons at the Tigers. I also had the opportunity to represent New South Wales and represent Australia. At the end of the day I was just glad to have been given enough physical prowess and determination to do what I did. Sure my knee packed in, but I had a pretty good run. I would have been a lot more disappointed if my knee had have packed in after two or three years.

Rammo: Succeeding Alan Jones as Balmain coach in 1994, the side unfortunately won the wooden spoon, but you commanded a great deal of respect from your players. How did your find your first season at the helm with the Tigers?

Junior: It was pretty tough. It was a year where there were lots of players at the club who I don?t think should have been there. There was an attitude there that didn?t sit very comfortably with me. It was a year where we had to try and turn things around. It was a real struggle, we had very little money, and it takes money to build a winning team. So I guess it was difficult from that point of view, I suppose if I had have been an experienced coach I would have been a lot more disappointed. I was a bit na?ve as a coach as I thought we could turn it around overnight. We started to get some results the next year and we started to rebuild the club, but it took a few years before we got the club competitive because of the fact that there was very little money to work with. The Super League war hit the next year and that was a further drain, because the Tigers weren?t a part of the calculations of getting any big money from that so it was a really tough time.

Rammo: You held the reins at Balmain until the end of 1999 when they merged with Western Suburbs. What are your thoughts on the joint venture?

Junior: It was always going to be tough. It was hard in the early days because you?re bringing two clubs together with different cultures, and you?re trying to accommodate for the needs of two sets of supporters and officials. It was difficult for that first year, and it was difficult for a few years. The two sets of officials, from both Wests and Balmain, both stuck to their guns, and believed in a vision which was generated back in 2000. Courtesy of Tim Sheens, the club has come up with a premiership and I think it was a magnificent effort by Tim and the whole club to achieve that last season.

Rammo: You coached the Wests Tigers in their first year, taking on a number of players that you hadn?t had much to do with previously. Was this challenging and how did you find the joint venture in general?

Junior: We had a lot more resources to work with. We had a very good season in 2000. It started off fantastically well, I think we were leading the comp after 6 or 7 rounds. Halfway through the comp I think we were in about fourth position, the problem was that we had a devastating injury toll. We had a pretty good roster with about 15 decent players, but beyond that we struggled for depth. Once we got injuries to about 6 or 7 of our key men, who were out for the season, it really knocked our chances of going on from there. We missed the eight by a couple of points, I think we only won a couple of games in the last 7 or 8 rounds.

Rammo: Would you consider taking the Blues to a clean sweep in 2000 over the Maroons the pinnacle of your coaching career? Tell us a bit about that.

Junior: It stands out as a real highlight. For me it was probably the most satisfying or rewarding part of my coaching career because I was working with elite players. I was in an environment which was the cauldron of representative football. Coaching State of Origin is probably one of the highest profile coaching jobs in the country. It was very rewarding. The first series I coached was in 1999 and we had a drawn series that year, that was a bit of a nothing result for New South Wales or Queensland. To come and win 3-0 the next year, and break a lot of records along the way like the biggest winning margin in Origin football, meant that it was something which I was quite proud of.

Rammo: Do you have any regrets about the nature of the Blues? bonding session which saw both Robbie Kearns and Brad Clyde sustain serious injuries? Would you have done things differently if you had your time over again?

Junior: Naturally I wouldn?t have taken them horse-riding because we got a couple of injuries. The reasons I did it and the rationale behind it was to keep the players out of pubs, and get them in an environment where they could understand each other a little bit better and I think subsequent Origin coaches have found that it may not have been such a bad philosophy. The problem was that the activity I took them to do was out of the realms of the ability of some of the players. That meant that unfortunately there were a couple of injuries. You don?t need to get drunk to have fun, you don?t really get to know anybody because you?re slobbering too much. The guys still had a few drinks but they were in an environment where they got to know each other a little bit better than previously.

Rammo: Since then you have become a prominent media figure, commentating on Fox Sports, how have you found that side of footy?

Junior: I enjoy it. It?s certainly a completely different mindset to playing or coaching. You have to try to communicate with the viewers your opinions on the game. It?s quite different, challenging, it?s fun, and it keeps me involved in the game. I enjoy it.

Rammo: Are you doing anything else in football, apart from your media work? Which other career activities have you undertaken?

Junior: Commentating is my only involvement in football. In addition to that I run a High Performance Training business. I work with companies to help business teams and business leaders get the most productive results possible from their workers. That?s quite enjoyable, I take a lot of the skills that I?ve picked up over the years as a footballer and a football coach, and I apply those in the corporate sector.

Rammo: I also hear that you?re in a band. What?s happening with that?

Junior: Yeah I?ve got a bit of a band happening which is fun. We do about 20 gigs a year which is the limit that I have set on it because it takes a bit of time. It?s great, we get people up dancing and partying, for me it?s a good way to get away from it all, and real good fun.

Rammo: You must have been impressed with the Tigers? 2005 premiership triumph, being one of the Balmain side of the joint venture?s all-time greats. What did you feel as you saw Scott Prince lift the 2005 Premiership trophy aloft?

Junior: I was actually out at Telstra Stadium watching the grand final, and from my point of view the result was never in doubt. The Tigers really did dominate, it was level for the first 15 or 20 minutes or so but after that the Tigers took the ascendancy. When the final whistle blew, I felt a sense of relief really. Probably because the Tigers hadn?t won a premiership for so long, I was really happy, very proud of the guys. I went back to the club afterwards to rejoice with the boys and it was a fantastic feeling.

Rammo: Rugby League continues to evolve. What have been the biggest changes since your coaching days? Where do you think the game is heading?

Junior: Since I coached, the game has become even more professional. The resources for back-up staff are increasing in numbers. The game is becoming one now where you need 17 athletes in your squad. You cannot afford to carry players that aren?t athletes nowadays. As far as preparation goes, there is a lot more emphasis placed on getting the mental side of the game right, for years and years the players have worked on the skills necessary for the physical side of the game but I think the mental preparation is now the one that?s getting more and more famous. That?s probably the last facet of the game which coaches can work on and get a significant amount of improvement.

Rammo: Your son Mitchell has signed with the Sydney Roosters. Can you tell us a bit about his game and will it be hard to watch him run around in anything other than a Black and Gold jersey?

Junior: No. He?s his own person and he chose which club he wanted to go to. I had no influence on that and didn?t want to play a part in that, because I didn?t want him to regret where he went. He chose the Roosters, a little bit of my heart probably wishes he went to the Tigers but I?m just happy for him to go wherever he enjoys his footy most. He plays halfback or five eighth, a very skilful player, good kicking game and he has a fair bit of size about him. He?s only 16 years of age but he?s about 6"5'. He?s a promising young player but we?ll just have to wait and see how he goes.

Rammo: Who had the biggest influence over your career?

Junior: I?d probably have to say Frank Stanton. He was terrific in terms of the way he developed my footballing ability in the early days of my first grade career.

Rammo: Best player you played with or against?

Junior: Peter Sterling. He was an outstanding player in all conditions. Whether the ball was dry, or whether it was a fast track or slow track, a tight game or an open game, Peter always produced the goods. The best player I have seen would definitely have to be Andrew Johns. He?s got all the skills that Sterlo had, but he?s also got that physical strength and power as well.

Rammo: Toughest player you played with or against?

Junior: I would say Garry Jack, the former fullback with the Tigers. He was a fullback but he put his body on the line game after game. He was fearless, for mine toughness is one?s ability to absorb punishment and get up and go again and he was that sort of player.