THE World Club Challenge. Is it one of those moments in a player’s career they will look back on forever? Is that how they treat it?
Yeah. There is a real excitement around the place at the moment. They’re going away on Saturday with their mates to the UK. A lot of them have never been there before, a lot of them may never go again.
I guess a few have never been out of Australia?
Mate, in my team there’s a few who have never been up over the top of the Bulli Pass.
Do you like the concept?
Yeah, I do … it’s prestige. It’s the best of the best playing each other, different hemispheres … life is about experiences and this is a great experience.
Does it give you a kick-start to the season?
No, I don’t believe that.
Is it a negative then?
It’s not a kick-start because there is also a fair bit of recovery required with all this. So I don’t think it is a benefit that way … but it is an opportunity to pursue another trophy with your teammates who you won a grand final with. It’s an opportunity to travel, to play in another country … so positives far outweigh negatives.
Looking back on the grand final and what you have seen over the pre-season, do you see a different Saints to what you remember from this time last year?
They’re not looking over their shoulders here anymore. They didn’t come back for the pre-season saying ‘here we go again’. It’s a weight lifted off their shoulders and they can just be the footballers they want to be now.
To win a competition, does it change the man?
You can’t just keep going to war and not taste success, otherwise it does dent your confidence. But when you have tasted that success it does give you confidence and that self-belief. Not one of our players here had a bad pre-season or bad off-season because they weren’t interested in looking back on a season of regrets.
One thing some people have spoken about lately is the fact you haven’t made a decision on your future … and that it has the potential to pull the team apart?
I will tell you one thing, my decision will not pull this team apart. OK. It’s just not going to happen. It’s as simple as that.
How difficult in the modern game is it to win back-to-back premierships? You’ve done it twice before (Brisbane 1992-93 and 97-98)?
It’s always difficult, because it’s been done so infrequently.
Is it more difficult now?
Of course. I accept the salary cap but, you know, when you are in a free market it is a whole different world. The first thing you do is go and get a couple of players to come in for the following year. But really what happens in your club after you win a premiership is you have to lose players. But that’s what happens because they want other teams to have the same opportunity as you to win a premiership.
Do you agree with the concept of a salary cap?
I do. There are 16 clubs in the NRL and there are certainly a lot of teams out there that believe their team is a chance of winning a premiership and that’s the way it should be. You look at the English Premier League and you know that there are only two or three teams that are going to challenge for that position. You know that before the season even starts. But that is not in the best interests of sport, not with TV where you can just sit there and skip a channel and it doesn’t matter. You have to have a product where a fan believes his team can win on any given day. That’s what the Americans have done well, that’s why they’ve got salary caps. They recognise the fan won’t be there in the numbers they need to grow their games and revenues if he doesn’t think his team can win.
Is there a simple solution to changing the cap to keep some of these big-name players in the game. Like the Folaus and Hunts and Sonny Bill Williams … it’s always the No. 1 gripe from the players, that we’re not doing enough to keep these stars?
A number of players leave because they don’t want to play at another club. The club they are at just can’t give them a salary because the salary cap is restricting that.
So they don’t want to go and play at another club, so they go to England or wherever. And they get a different lifestyle and off they go. One of the things I do believe is that if there is expansion, then 50 per cent of their players should be made up of Australians who are playing in the UK. Like if we expand and just let it happen, then you have to find these players out of our current competition. But if we’re smart we can do it by making it a prerequisite for these clubs that 50 per cent of their squad needs to be players who are based in England.
The problem with expansion is that it dilutes your product. Now, I’m sure the administrators understand it but I’m not sure the fans have got their head around it right now. All the great teams have great players but all of a sudden they start to spread around more and more. Well, you don’t have the product that you had because you don’t have those quality players and quality teams. It’s the quality players who give us the product. It’s always been about the players the fans want to see.
Would two more teams bring more money to the game?
I’m not an administrator, I’m just telling you if we had to lose 40 or 50 players to build up two teams out of the current competition, that would be an average of what, three players out of each of the 16 teams from your 25-man squads? And some of those will be your best. It’s certainly going to have an impact.
From your point of view, in 2013 would you like to see expansion?
Well, if it all balances out. Look, I’m not privy to all the information.
I understand, but from your point of view, is it time for the game to grow?
Yeah, if the game is in a position to do that. I don’t have a problem with expansion. But as I said, if we’re going to have expansion we’ve got to come up with some plans to grow our recruitment grounds as well. I think there has to be more done with the Pacific Islands, to give us more access to players, because at the end of the day the fans don’t want the quality of the football they see every week to be any less than what they are getting now. Expansion for expansion’s sake is not what I’m interested in. But if we do it in a way where there are real benefits to the game and the game can support it, then I’m a fan of it.
I’ve got to say to News Corp’s credit with Melbourne they have made sure that has worked down there. Because of their personal commitment to that. Otherwise, Melbourne would have been gone five years ago, righto. That’s the type of commitment we need. If we don’t want to make that commitment to those new clubs and do what it takes over a decade to get them up and running
Which is what the AFL appear to do so well?
Now listen, this is going to end up about expansion and I don’t want to end up getting the shits with you. Maybe next week when I’m in the UK you can do a bit of an article on what I’ve said.
What about we run it all?
I don’t want to be the headline tomorrow. Let’s talk about expansion next week. Next question.
What else do we want to talk about … I’d love to hear your thoughts on betting and betting sponsorship in the NRL?
No, don’t take me there. Next.
Good as gold. Mark Gasnier in 2011. What do you hope to see from him this year? Is he back to his best yet?
I don’t think he’s there right now but I think he’s working towards that, yeah. He’s done everything right in the pre-season and he’s a wonderful player and he knows how important the pre-season is and he’s done that well, so I’m sure he will play well.
Darius Boyd. I read the other day him saying he’d like to have you as his coach for the rest of his career, which is a beautiful thing for him to say, unless you leave Saints? What do you say about that, can you say anything?
What can I say?
Next question. On your future, do you plan to make a decision before the start of the season?
I have no plan about when I will be making any decision.
Do you get peeved off or can you understand the interest?
I answered your last question and I won’t answer that one.
OK, from a personal perspective, coaching at, how old are you now, 61?
My birth certificate says that Paul, but I may not be 61. But my birth certificate says that.
Most men out there might not be as fortunate as you in having a job they love, but most men at your age aren’t thinking about signing a new deal. What makes you want to continue to coach?
I just enjoy what I do. Got to do something.
Must be a good feeling to have a job you have loved for your whole life and been lucky enough to have had success at it and still want it?
I’ve loved the game my whole life. I can’t remember, from the time I was a little boy, that I wasn’t running with a football in my hands, trying to tackle somebody.
It’s one of the great things about the game. Because it’s a game, you can love it forever.
Well, I have. It’s one of the things I appreciate. I was brought up on rugby league fields, I was brought up on training paddocks. Because that is what my Dad played and my uncles played and it has always just been a part of me. I’ve never had a year away from football. I’ve never gone away and said I need a sabbatical here.
Do you become a better coach with age?
There’s not much doubt about that. The drama as you get older is that you might not have the hunger you had in the past. But do you know more? Of course you do. Do you continue to work? Of course.
It’s almost the same in every aspect of life. As you get older you get more wisdom.
As long as you can change. Some people get old long before their years because they can’t change.
When I talk to players a common thing for people living away from home is they get homesick. Do you still get homesick?
Oh yeah, it’s the same.
You never get over it, do you?
It’s like a lot of things in life. You just need to learn to manage them.
I guess that’s one thing you haven’t really talked about, living down here. Have you learned to enjoy it, living in Wollongong?
The club has been wonderful and the people have been great, so that has made it a lot easier.
I asked you last year and you didn’t answer at the time but you might be more responsive now; what do you spend your time away from football doing?
I’m still not answering that.
I should know when to quit?
That’s exactly right.
Do you have an idea in your mind how long you want to keep coaching? Do you want to keep coaching for as long as you can?
I don’t have an idea in my mind. I will know when I wake up and I don’t want to go to training and I will say; ‘Well, I’ve had enough. I don’t want to do this anymore.’
Horse racing’s like that. You get a lot of old trainers who keep training forever and they absolutely love it and never want to give it away. Is it like that? Can you see yourself coaching for a long time?
Racehorse trainers are a great example. There are plenty of them well into their years but they still know how it works, mate. Maybe physically they can’t do as much as they used to do, but mentally they are as bright as they have ever been. They know how it all works. And they get help with the physical side, but they do the mental side.
I wanted to ask earlier about this St George Illawarra side. I know it’s hard to rate different teams from different eras. But when you look back at some of your great Broncos sides, what does this side bring to the table? How do they rate?
I don’t rate them, I just coach them.