A LEGEND in Queensland and New Zealand, a Bulldog that endured Grand Final triumphs and salary-cap heartache with Canterbury and a man who nearly played for England in the 2000 World Cup. Steve Price discussed a wonderful career with me for Rugby League World in 2008.
You’ve been in New Zealand for three seasons. Is it a move you’re pleased you made?
Yes, it is. I probably needed a change and I think it’s worked out even better than I thought it could. I signed a three-year deal straight from the Bulldogs so that would have been up to the end of this year but I signed a one-year extension at the start of the year. So, at the moment, I plan to finish at the end of next season.
Would you consider a move to England at that point?
It’s not something I’ve thought about but you never know what’s around the corner I suppose. I never thought I’d leave the Bulldogs. I’ll have to see if I’m still enjoying my footy in a year’s time. I certainly wouldn’t go to another NRL club but, even so, I don’t think a move to England would be realistic. If I was going to go to England, it would have been best when I left the Bulldogs.
When you first started out, is it true that Wayne Bennett went to watch you play but noticed Shane Webcke instead?
[laughs] Yes, that’s right. It was an Under-18s Grand Final in the early nineties and I was up against Shane. Wayne was friends with our coach who had told him to come and look at me. Shane and I had pretty good games but Wayne went away wanting to pick Shane Webcke. You could say he got the right guy! I ended up on a scholarship with the Gold Coast Seagulls who wanted me to play for their Under 21s a year later, at the end of 1992. I went back to school to get better marks because I wanted to be a policeman and in the footy, we got through to the Commonwealth Bank Grand Final and Peter Moore from the Bulldogs saw me. He must have liked what he saw because he made me an offer. The Gold Coast were taken out of the Under 21s competition for 1993 and that’s how Peter got me out of my scholarship there. The rest is history I suppose.
You then made your first-grade debut in 1994.
I played 21s in 1993 and a few more in 1994 as well as a few reserve grade games. Later in the season, I was in the first team and even played in the Grand Final when we were beaten by Canberra. In 1995, I was more of a regular and played in another Grand Final, when we beat Manly. I was lucky to be in the team that I was in to be honest, playing with guys like Terry Lamb but we went through a dry spell after that. After two in two years, we didn’t make another final until 2004, when I was captain but I didn’t even play having injured my knee the week before. That was heartbreaking but, in a way, still very satisfying.
How do you remember the Salary Cap scandal in 2002?
It broke our hearts. We went through the entire season leading the competition and then with three rounds to go, in my first year as captain, we lose all 37 competition points and end up bottom of the table. But I took things out of that that made me a better person and a better player; a stronger person and a stronger player. That sort of thing makes you tougher and it was the same in 2004 with the big sex scandal allegations. In 2003, we all took pay cuts so we could stay together and although we lost to the Roosters the week before the Grand Final, we knew we weren’t too far away at the start of 2004. As a group, our bond was quite unbelievable and other clubs might have struggled. We won the comp in 2004 and that was a remarkable achievement given what we’d gone through. Things happen for a reason and, looking back on it now, it was certainly something that changed my life and my career.
So were those events a major factor in you winning the 2004 Grand Final?
Yes, probably. But also we had guys like Sonny-Bill Williams, Rene Maitua and Johnathan Thurston coming into the squad and they really added something to our team. Braith Anasta hit form too as did Ben Harris in the centres. We’d become so tight as a group because of the Salary Cap and the sex scandals and knew the way we had reacted to those things could get us through.
How good can Sonny-Bill become?
Individually, he’s probably got the greatest physique and athleticism in the game. He was the fastest bloke at the Bulldogs when I was there and that included the outside backs. He’s got a fend, the skills, the agility and all that in one player is amazing. He used to want to bash someone on every play but he’s knows to wait for the right time now in that respect. He certainly put a number on us recently when they were down to 12 men and he won them the game that day. He’s got massive expectations placed upon him now so it’s a question of how he can handle that. He’s handling it better than when he was younger though.
Do you feel sorry for him that the media pursue him in like they do or should he avoid the nightlife and not put himself in such situations?
I do feel sorry for him but he has to understand that those things can happen and he’ll learn that the hard way, I suppose, not to go out late or to have a few drinks in private rather than go out and do it publicly. It’s difficult because everyone wants to know that Sonny-Bill Williams is doing. It’s a bit like with Michael Owen over there because the public has such an appetite for superstars. It comes with the territory a little bit.
He’s one of many exciting young Kiwis in the NRL and you play with a lot of them now.
Yes, there are and it’s quite scary for Australia and Great Britain. At the Warriors, there are some wonderful players coming through but it’s not just their ability that’s impressive. They’re such good people and that’s great for the Warriors because they’re the future. It’s important that the game gets things right at the top because if there’s stability and no controversy at the top of the NZRL, then it filters down and the kids come through into the right environment.
Is this the healthiest that the Warriors have ever been? They seem to be a well run and stable club now.
Yes, we’re in a good state now and it’ll only get healthier as the years go on. We’re attracting the best of the young kids in New Zealand now and they want to play for the Warriors whereas the club might lose them to the Eels or the Broncos or wherever else. The Warriors lost a couple of players a few years ago and we’re starting to build a culture and squad that’s a really good place to be around. We’ve got a couple of 18-year-olds now who were hugely in demand elsewhere but they chose to stay here and that’s a big pat on the back for the club.
Two players that you lost were Stacey Jones and Brent Webb but it hasn’t affected you.
We’re lucky to have good players in the important positions of 1, 6, 7 and 9. When we lost Brent, people wondered what would happen but Wade McKinnon came in and the best thing he did was be himself and not try and be another Brent Webb. Likewise, Grant Rovelli had to replace Stacey and he’s done a great job. The difference now, is that we’ve strengthened in other areas. Stacey was a lot more in control of the team but when he didn’t play well, the Warriors didn’t. Grant just has to do his job and there are a few guys who had the role that Stacey had.
Were you influential in getting Brent Tate, your brother-in-law, to the club for 2008?
Yes and no. He asked me about the Warriors and I had a lot of positive things to say about the club and New Zealand. That will have helped but, at the end of the day, it was down to him. I didn’t push him too hard because he’s the one who has to train and be happy with the situation but he’s looking forward to it and it’ll be great for us and him.
How good is Ruben Wiki?
It’s not just his football ability that stands out. You should see what he’s about off the field. For our young guys in particular, they just grew up idolising him. He’s got the world Test caps record and he’s the ultimate clubman. There’s no rubbish about him and he’s got the utmost respect of everyone who plays with him or against him. He was one of the reasons that I was looking forward to coming to the Warriors, when I heard that he was leaving Canberra. To get to play with him, rather than against him, was a big factor!
Can you emulate the 2002 side and make the Grand Final this year?
That’s what you aim for. If everyone plays to the best of their ability then we can cause some damage. I just focus on each week but things have gone well and our home crowds have been great. It all depends on how we’re playing and what sort of attitude we’ve got at that period. From my experience at the Bulldogs, things can change very quickly and you’ve got to learn to deal with that. When it comes good, that sort of thing makes it very satisfying when you go out there on Grand Final day and lift the trophy up.
You and Ruben will be able to pass on your semi-final tips to the players.
Yes, although we haven’t been in that situation yet since I’ve been here. We haven’t made the semi-finals yet. We’re a work in progress. We’ve gone from 12th to 10th to hopefully the top eight this year. Ruben’s got plenty of stories to tell but I don’t think the players want to hear our tales! We want to create our own stories at the Warriors and our own history.
You’ve played a lot of representative football for Queensland and Australia. Were your performances in this year’s Origin the highlight?
Yes, I’d say so. Last year was very special, winning it from 1-0 down but this year was an absolute pleasure. The atmosphere in camp is great and the way the games went for me was pretty special. I hadn’t played like that in three games in one series before and it’s something I’ll look back on and be very proud of.
How do you look back on your international career?
Well I hope it’s not over yet! I haven’t played since we lost the 2005 Tri-Nations to the Kiwis but to have played ten Tests for Australia is huge. I’m just very proud to have done that but I haven’t played at my absolute best for them.
If 2008 is your last year, is it a goal to bow out with a World Cup win?
That would be great but we’ll have to see how the selectors go. They might go with younger guys but if I’m playing well enough then I’d like to think there would be no reason why I wouldn’t be there. I haven’t played in a World Cup yet although I considered playing for England in 2000.
Really? What was the story there?
The NRL in 2000 ended early because of the Olympics and my manager was trying to get me a stint at Bradford but I did my medial ligament in my knee in the final stages of negotiating. Steve Folkes wasn’t keen either. As for England, I qualified through my grandmother who was born in Liverpool. This season I actually qualify for Australia, England and New Zealand because I haven’t played for Australia for two years.
Is it a realistic possibility? The Kiwis seem to have adopted you.
I’m a proud Australian and it would be a bit embarrassing on my part to line up for New Zealand or England having been born in Australia. It’d be embarrassing for someone like Ruben as well to see me in a haka!
Are you looking forward to representing the All Golds this year in Warrington?
Very much so. It’s beautiful. I haven’t heard too many details about our side but I have heard that they’ll ask Ruben, Stacey and Nigel Vagana as well as some rugby union players but it’s played on the same day as their World Cup final. I think they’re inviting whoever wins the Dally M medal. I’m just stoked that I’m going to be playing. Who’s the Northern Union side going to be made up of?
Your guess is as good as mine Steve. The RFL appear to be keeping it a secret. Will you stay in England to watch the Test series?
As soon as the All Golds game is over, we’ll be shooting down to Rome to look at a bit of history like the Coliseum and then we’ll come back.