The interview series is back again, as we had a chat with former Penrith Panthers, Parramatta Eels and London Broncos utility back, Tulsen Tollett. A wordsmith at heart, we asked Tollett about his rugby league career, moving over from England at a young age, his foray into rugby union and his now flourishing media career.
So sit back and absorb the answers:
1. You were born in Sussex before moving to Australia at an early age; what prompted you to pursue rugby league growing up and what are your first memories of the sport?
We emigrated to Australia in 1979 and originally moved to Villawood and stayed in what eventually became the infamous Immigration Detention Centre. It’s where my love of snooker actually comes from as there was a communal pool/snooker table that was available to practice on. We stayed there while my parents sorted out where we were going to settle and as they chased jobs first and foremost. It was just a case of sorting the rest of life to cut a long story short.
I’d never heard of Rugby League and wasn’t that aware of it in general. I remember when we moved to Emu Plains, us kids went to a babysitters one night in St Clair I think it was, and I saw the 1980 Grand Final between Canterbury and Eastern Suburbs as they were then; it was the one where Greg Brentnall kicked ahead and Steve Gearin caught it on the full and stretched out to score. There may have been other things I saw but as far as I remember, that match is my first insight into the sport.
I actually played football (soccer) in 1981 and 1982 for my local club as my dad grew up with the sport in England and that was natural for him and my mother to want me to play a less non-contact sport really. I remember my older brother was taking up Rugby League and my friends at school were predominantly playing the sport, so I begged my mother to let me and eventually she relented against her better judgement. To make matters worse, I was a year ahead in school and my friends were older and I played U11s first up but I wasn’t 10 until May that year in 1983!
2. Your first-grade debut came in 1992 against the Panthers; were you expecting the opportunity or was it a surprise?
It’s peculiar how it came about and no I wasn’t really expecting it although I fully appreciated it. I played reserve grade against Parramatta the week before and we won while the first-grade side who were reigning Premiers were beaten 20-0; I think it was at Parramatta Stadium. I don’t remember being told as such as we used to get together, all three grades on a Tuesday and the teams would be announced. I remember the rest of the week was a blur for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we played the Roosters and won all three grades against a club leading the Club Championship and coming first in the top grade if memory serves me correctly. I was on top of the world.
The second reason came following the match. I was hanging out having a beer with a few of the lads in the reserve grade team over the Leagues Club following our function which we always had after home matches for awards etc. One of the guys there was Ben Alexander, who I’d replaced that week. The usual banter was going backwards and forwards in a friendly way as there was no animosity from him or anyone else as we had a really good camaraderie at the Panthers.
They were heading off elsewhere, that was the last time I ever saw him alive. I could tell you now what he was wearing, it’s etched in my memory. He was killed in a car accident shortly after I saw him, with three other players in the vehicle sustaining injuries – Luke Goodwin, Glen Liddiard and Scott Murray. Not the way you want to remember your first-grade debut but it can’t be changed now.
3. After just 1 year in Penrith, you moved to cross-town rivals the Parramatta Eels and became a bit of a favourite; what was your time like at the Eels over your three seasons there?
I had a great time at the Eels. We started my first season there really well and then fell away a bit but it was a club that I really enjoyed with fanatical supporters who remain to this day and that first premiership since 1986 will come sooner rather than later. Brad Arthur is doing a fine job and deserves success for all the effort and change in attitude he’s brought about there.
I remember we played Brisbane in their first match at the QE2 Stadium in 1993 and we got a win up there which I think only we believed we could get. It was a surreal day, as we were walking in from the warm-up area one of the skydivers had gotten himself tangled up in a tree missing the stadium but thankfully he was alright. Then, Michael Buettner scored all 12 points against a team who were Premiers and would go on to win it again that year.
Playing with Brett Kenny who was my idol growing up was brilliant as it was his last season and in the following two years, we just seemed to lack consistency and a few players to drive us forward some more. We’d generally put in a good performance and follow it with something completely different.
4. A move to England then beckoned where you signed with the London Broncos; how did the English game differ from the Australian game?
My plan at first was to spend a year in England and then return to Australia. I’d signed with Super League in 1995 and I had a year left at Parramatta, but as they had aligned with the ARL, we came to an agreement and I moved on, unfortunately. My first year in London was an adventure, that’s the best way to describe it. It doesn’t snow that much in London so the first day I arrived it absolutely bucketed down, so much so that Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League game that evening had to be abandoned midway through it was so bad.
We had a great camaraderie in London and performed so well because we didn’t have the best team in the world talent wise but we had a willingness to do whatever it took for each other. That was because we got on so well as a group, and that was down mainly to Tony Currie who was the coach in those first three years of Super League for the London Broncos. He instilled a code of conduct that was strong and the players took responsibility for their actions, but also we knew how to relax and enjoy each other’s company.
The game itself in England I found to be a lot quicker than in Australia because referees wouldn’t allow players to lie in the tackle and it meant the play the ball area was a free for all at times. Markers were rarely straight or they’d shoot out way too early and the referee wouldn’t be quick to penalise. The defence wasn’t seen as a necessity for many because they’d rather score 40 and concede 30 but still win. I found it enjoyable, though and settled into the way of life in the capital thus choosing to stay.
5. In between seasons with the Broncos, you played rugby union for both Harlequins and London Welsh; was that just to keep fit or did rugby union intrigue you enough to give it a crack?
I wanted to give it a go as I played at school and never wanted to finish playing wishing I’d done it. We ground shared with Harlequins in 1997 at The Twickenham Stoop and it was a logical choice when they approached me. I was fortunate enough to play with former England captain Will Carling and World Cup-winning prop Jason Leonard along with Irish and Lions hooker Keith Wood, plus a host of others. It was a learning experience with a lot of things as the sport had only turned professional around two years before I joined them, but it was an experience I am always truly thankful for.
London Welsh came about in 1999 as it was Rugby Union World Cup year and I had spoken to Bath coach at the time, Andy Robinson, about spending two months with them to provide cover. They had won the Heineken Cup (European Cup) just the year before and I was tempted but I chose to play with London Welsh in the end when they found out I was available for a short stint. They were in the division below the Premiership but were a club with a clear progression plan with people and players I knew. Clive Griffiths who had represented Wales in both Rugby Union and Rugby League and would later be part of a Wales Grand Slam-winning coaching team was in charge, and I’d worked with him on the 1996 Great Britain Rugby League Tour.
They were based around the corner from where I lived at the time which also proved attractive, and it was one of the best times of my life. Plus, if it hadn’t have been for this move, I’d never have met my wife!
6. You were forced to retire from professional sport in 2001 due to a shoulder injury; did you feel like there was a chance you could come back from it or was retirement the sole, safe option?
I had my third shoulder reconstruction in 2001 and the second on the same shoulder in the space of a year, although the second time was more of a tendon issue. I had intended to see out my contract and play my final year which would’ve taken me to the end of 2002 and in my mind, I was ready to retire then. I’d been playing at first-team level since 1992 and I always wanted to play around 10 years. For some reason, I always thought there was more I wanted to do with my life despite the fact that I enjoyed doing what I was doing. It’s a lucky life being a professional sports person in any shape or form and people would always say you’re a long time retired.
I’d done some work for the BBC on radio while I was playing and a new digital channel was starting up at the time and they asked if I’d be interested in hosting some matches on it plus Sky Sports had the NRL which they offered me a regular slot on, so for me it was a case that if I didn’t take those opportunities, then they may well not be there in 12 months time.
At the back of my mind, I always had the doctors advice to listen to in that if I injured the same shoulder one more time, it could prove extremely problematic so common sense played a part in it as well.
7. You hold a Bachelor of Physical Education Teaching; tell us a bit about what prompted you to pursue that and where it led you to.
I decided to complete a Bachelor of Physical Education degree at the Australian College of Physical Education as teaching was something which interested me and sport was a natural progression in that area. It worked in well around training and playing and I quite enjoyed the course even if getting up early sore after a match during the season wasn’t necessarily my dream, it was certainly character building! I actually only taught for one year before I had the chance to move to England and that was at Jamison High School in South Penrith.
It was and still is a super school (I actually taught a bit of history as well which I’m a fan of) with some really good educators and a profession that is undervalued by many people in many countries, unfortunately. I do the odd bit of further education teaching when I have time these days if the schedule allows it. It’s another one of those journeys that helped mould me as a person I guess.
8. You currently work at the BBC World News as a presenter; tell us a bit about the role and what you do, and what it’s like to work for the BBC.
In 2010, my wife and I decided to spend some time back in Sydney. Our second child had been born in April and with the kids still well off starting school, we thought it was a move we should make to spend some time there and not wish in years to come that we had not done it. My wife is Irish so it wasn’t like we were going home as I hadn’t lived there since early 1996 so it was adventure time again. I worked for the ABC for both the 24-hour news TV Channel and also ABC NewsRadio with people like Debbie Spillane who I always saw on the TV when I was growing up and someone who led the way as a trailblazer for women in broadcasting.
In mid-2012, we moved back to Ireland and I generally spent a few days a week in the UK doing the sports presenting for BBC World News along with a few other outside bits I work on. Working on World News could involve stories on anything from Premier League football to cricket or the NBA so there’s a good mix of sports to work with which is what I enjoy. This year, I was out working on some 6 Nations Rugby Union along with things such as the Snooker World Championship on the final day completely dressed in black tie with other projects in the pipeline for next year.
It’s a hectic place to work as you could imagine but a lot of good operators are involved and as it’s the BBC and seen around the world as one of the bastions of broadcasting, it’s important to set and maintain high standards which we always try to adhere to.