Simon Mannering retired from rugby league this year after playing 301 NRL matches for the Warriors and 45 tests for the Kiwis. In this extract from his book Simon Mannering - Warrior, Mannering talks about earning his stripes early in his career.
In the 2007 season I was still mainly playing centre for the Warriors with the odd game in the second row thrown in when the coaches needed me to fill in there. The main thing I remember from that NRL season was that after playing a lot of first grade and also in the Kiwis at a young age it all started to catch up on me and I allowed myself to get quite run-down. In Round 23, we lost a really close game against the Raiders in Canberra, 26–24.
Before that game, I was thinking, 'Man, I feel a bit weird.' It was like I was coming down with something. I was wondering, 'What's going on? I feel a bit funny.' And towards the end of the game I was struggling: 'Man, I don't feel right.' We got back to Auckland and I just deteriorated. I was in all sorts of trouble. I don't think I made it to training all week and spent most of my time thinking I was about to curl up and die at home.
At this stage I had moved out of Toddy's house in Kohimarama and was living on my own in Ellerslie. Grant Rovelli's missus had come over, so they had moved in together, and Todd Byrne had got a pad somewhere else. I was still only 20, it was just before my 21st birthday and in hindsight the reason I got so crook was that I just hadn't been looking after myself properly.
Playing an NRL season takes a big physical toll on your body and after having a pretty huge year in 2006 and then carrying that on into the '07 season, my lack of knowledge around nutrition and recovery bit me in the butt. I think back to what I used to eat then and what I eat now and it's chalk and cheese. It wasn't like I was out eating takeaways or Maccas all the time; I thought I was doing the right thing with what I was eating.
It was pretty standard. It would usually consist of some form of protein and some form of carbohydrate and that was pretty much the extent of my diet. There wasn't a lot of fruit or veges. Anyway, Walksy paid me a visit at home to see how I was getting on, and after having a nosey through my fridge and pantry he was shaking his head.
Craig Walker: When he was a young guy his dietary habits left a lot to be desired. I think he thought fresh fruit came in a tin. It was amazing he was so healthy, actually. I remember there was one game and we needed to beat Manly and we felt we needed Simon if we were going to have a chance. We needed him at centre to take on Jamie Lyon, who was in red-hot form for them. He had got so run-down with this terrible diet of his that he lost a huge amount of weight, like six or seven kilograms, in a short time. He had mouth ulcers. His throat was all swollen. I think Doc said, 'He shouldn't play. He's only young.' I took him down to the supermarket and showed him what food he should be buying: fresh fruit, broccoli, spinach, nuts and stuff like that.
I couldn't eat any food for most of the week and was rapidly losing weight that I couldn't afford to lose because I was already so skinny. Walksy decided we should just chuck what we could in a blender and try to get some sustenance in me to try to hold some weight. We were blending up stuff like oats and bananas and peanut butter, even ice cream.
The home match against Manly that weekend was our last regular-season home game and the second to last match before the playoffs. The Sea Eagles were second in the competition, while we were running sixth but still with a decent shot at making the top four to earn a home final.
This match was also a special event because the club wanted to honour what the 1977 Auckland representative team, coached by Bill Sorensen, had achieved 30 years earlier. In the space of 21 days at Carlaw Park, they beat Australia 19–15, Great Britain 14–10 and France 17–0. Squad members from 1977 were going to be guests of honour at the Manly match while we were going to mark the Grand Slam by playing in a very cool 1977 replica strip. Ivan had a lot of faith in me and he felt they needed me out there for this game. He said, 'No, you'll still be all right. I reckon you can play.'
John Hart, the former All Blacks coach, was at the Warriors back then. He was on the board and he had quite a bit to do with that game. He came and talked to me in the smoko room at work. And he could speak. He could really hold a crowd. He used to give us great speeches actually, before big games. And the boys always loved it.
But this day all he did was reassure me. 'Mate, you'll be right to play.' I said, 'I just don't want to let anyone down.' 'No, you won't let anyone down. Don't worry about that. You're up to it. Doc Mayhew and Craig Walker know what the situation is now. They'll look after you and get you back on your feet. Let them to do their stuff and you'll be able to do yours.'
It was that sort of thing. And I guess with him saying that, it gave me the belief. I do the captain's run, the day before the game, and I only last 20 minutes of a 45-minute session. I'm just stuffed. Even then I'm like, 'No, I'm screwed here.' But Walksy was still positive about it all, saying, 'No, it's all good, just little steps at a time.'
They all gave me that confidence. Auckland is mad with Warriors fever at that time and 25,070 fans pack into Mt Smart. But personally I'm struggling. 20 minutes in against Manly and I'm buggered. The plan is to coax me through to halftime then Wairangi Koopu will come off the bench to play his 150th game for the Warriors.
But then Jerome Ropati is injured and Koops has to come on early. He pulls out a top-drawer performance for his big day, scoring two tries, but when I see him run on and Jerome going off I realise I'm going to have to stick this one out no matter how sh***y I feel. But I'm doing okay. And after doubting whether I should be out there, at the start of the game, now I'm starting to feel a bit better.
Then I go to tackle this guy and I can't hold on to him. I try to grab him with my hand to wrestle him and he just throws me off and I have no grip. I'm thinking, 'Something's not right.' I get through the half and go into the sheds. Doc Mayhew says, 'How are you going? How's your energy?' 'Yeah, not so bad. I'm all right. I'm getting through it.'
They're giving me caffeine and whatever those gels are, getting my energy levels up. 'Oh, there's something wrong with my hand. I couldn't grip.' Doc takes one look at it and he's just like, 'Oh.' I think he knew I had broken a bone in there right away, but he didn't want to say.
Doc Mayhew: He was only running on three cylinders, so he was stuffed and looked terrible. I took a look at him then I was about to move on when he said, 'Oh, and my hand's a bit sore,' just as casual as you like. 'Someone stood on it a few minutes after I went on. Can you have a look at it for me, please?' Well, I had a look and it was broken. So I strapped it up to protect it as much as I could and he went back out there and finished playing the game. To me, that was the epitome of Simon. There's no fuss about it and no one even knows it's happened. If I tell him, 'It's possible to carry on playing and you won't do yourself any permanent damage, but you will have to put up with an awful lot of pain,' well, he'll always play. From my point of view, I give him the medical view and then I ask him, 'Well, how do you feel? What do you think?' He's not an academic but he's an intelligent guy and he knows his body very well and how much it can take. If he thinks he's okay to play, invariably, he can play.
I don't remember doing it. It must have happened in a tackle. Someone must have landed on it. I think Doc knew, but he didn't want to say too much, because then I would be like, 'Oh, I'm sick and I've got a broken hand.' So, he just said, 'Oh yeah, that's all right.' He strapped it up. And I went out and played the second half and got through it okay and we won 36–14, quite comfortably, and I was glad I played.
Craig Walker: Well, he ended up playing. Guys like Ivan and me had only ever seen that sort of behaviour from very experienced players, seasoned campaigners who had been forged in the fire of many seasons in the NRL. We were quietly blown away by what he did. He was a special kid, a good team man. And he went out and he played well that day.
Doc Mayhew: Simon would rank as one of the toughest sportsmen I know. Let's put it this way, I've never dealt with anyone tougher than Simon Mannering. He's had a catalogue of injuries over the years, but he never misses games. He's played with broken ribs, broken cheeks, broken fingers. If he thinks he can do it, he'll do it. He has very strong willpower. Simon is tough in the way guys like the All Black greats Buck Shelford and Richie McCaw were tough. They're very similar. They'd play with significant injuries. Buck's ability to play with injuries is well catalogued. He had his scrotum sewn up on the sideline against France. Another time he got me to push a broken bone in his hand back into place, then ran back out there and finished the game. Afterwards I said, 'Hey, Buck, didn't I treat you for a broken hand at one point in that match?' 'Don't worry, I'll leave the tape on overnight.' You get the macho guys who swing their fists around, but Simon is definitely not like that. You hardly ever see him in an altercation on the field. If you do, it's only to break it up. Simon's lucky in that he hasn't had a lot of head injuries. So he should be okay in that regard. We're up there with best practice with head injuries. Hopefully, I'm going to see Simon in 10 years and, of course, I don't want him to sue me because I didn't take enough care with him. I have three sons who are professional rugby players and so I think, 'If it happened to them, what quality of care would I want someone to give them if they were injured?' That's always a good yardstick.
So that was on 26 August. I was turning 21 on the 28th, two days later, and the lads took me down to a bar in Ellerslie. All the team came down. My mum was up from the South Island and my grandparents were there. But I was so crook, I couldn't even have a beer. I was that buggered.
Micheal Luck: He played the game and played the house down. He scored a crucial try and was named man of the match. Then he didn't show up at work the next day and the next day and we all realised, 'He wasn't mucking around. He was really sick.' That was the first time I realised he was one of the special ones. He was mentally tough enough to know what was an injury and what just hurt. If you're genuinely injured, then you can't play. But if you just hurt, you can. He worked that out quickly and he could play with incredible pain that most other guys wouldn't have been able to play with. He's been amazingly durable. He's never had a big injury that I can remember. But he's had some painful ones. He'd play with painful injuries all the time: broken bones, muscle strains and tears. There are things he'd go on the field with when 99 per cent of players would be in a moonboot, sitting in the stands watching. He never made a fuss of it and the doc didn't either. They trusted Simon to know what he could play with and he did . . . and they'd step in if they had to.
The match was on a Sunday afternoon. I got an X-ray on the Monday and found I had fractured one of the metacarpals, the long bones between the wrist and the fingers. It sounds worse than it is. It's just painful. That same year Ruben Wiki had done the same thing and I think Steve Price had also had that injury during the season. They didn't miss a game because of it, so neither did I.
You usually get it from someone standing on it or even just in contact. I ended up having to strap on a plastic mould to my hand. It was comfortable and I could play, but it still hurt. And after that game I was still buggered for a while because I had depleted myself so much. I was still trying to put the weight back on.
People say I've got an incredibly high pain threshold and that's why I can take the field with all sorts of injuries. But that's far from the truth. I feel the pain just like everyone else. I just hate the thought of letting my team down by not being out there. The thought of that is a lot more painful than the injury itself. If you're on the sideline and you're watching your team and they do poorly, you just feel horrible. I think every footballer plays through injuries at some time in their career, because that's professional sport, and you're paid to play. We won our last game of the regular season, away against Penrith, 24–20, which meant we finished fourth in the minor premiership and earned a home final in the playoffs.
We played Parramatta at Mt Smart and it was a full house, nearly 29,000. That game was my first experience of finals football and it was awesome. The whole atmosphere changes, the intensity changes. It was a tough arm-wrestle of a game, and we ended up losing 12–10. We had another life and headed off to Townsville to take on the North Queensland Cowboys. I'd never played in heat like it. The game was scheduled for two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. It was over 40 degrees. And they did a bit of a number on us. The home team gets to decide which jersey they want to wear.
Generally, our away jersey is white or grey because it's not as hot playing. But the Cowboys knew that our home jersey was black, so they wore their white, away jersey at home. That meant we had to wear our black strip. And we just roasted in it. In Townsville you walk from the changing room to a back field to warm up and I remember the heat just blasting me as soon as I walked out. All the punters were milling around, chipping away at us. 'Ooh, she's a hot one today, boys.' We started the game okay, but we lost a couple of players to injury and then they just blew us off the park, 49–12. And that was us done for 2007.
The year 2007 was the 100th anniversary of rugby league in New Zealand. But there was nothing to celebrate in the Anzac Test in Brisbane. The Aussies thumped us 30–6. It was Bluey's last game in charge because he'd been offered a job as coach of Leeds, which was going to be a good payday for him and his family. He wanted to keep coaching the Kiwis while in England, but the New Zealand Rugby League wouldn't allow it. So they brought in former Kiwis fullback Gary Kemble as the new coach. Gary was a controversial decision because the players and the public were still keen for Bluey to stay on.
The Kiwis had performed well under Bluey. Gary hadn't coached at the highest level. He'd had a stint as the Warriors reserve grade coach, taking them to the Grand Final. But his other roles had been with the likes of the Junior Kiwis, the Residents, the New Zealand A team. He hadn't coached in the NRL or the Super League, but neither had Bluey before he took over, and I think they were hoping for the same success Bluey had achieved. Our first international under Gary was the Centenary Test against Australia in Wellington in October. It was the worst possible introduction to international coaching for him as we were utterly humiliated 58–0. To be fair to Gary, though, Steve Matai was sent off after 20 minutes for a late, high shot and you just can't take on the Aussies with 12 men for most of the match.
Then we set off on the Kiwis tour of Great Britain and France. It started with an exhibition match between the All Golds and Northern Union, to celebrate the centenary of the original New Zealand rugby league tour, by the team known as the All Golds. Brisbane coaching legend Wayne Bennett was the guest coach for the All Golds and led them to a 25– 18 win. I guess for the players involved in both the exhibition match and the New Zealand camp, the contrast between Bennett, probably the best coach ever, and the relatively inexperienced Gary Kemble must have been like night and day.
Gary's heart was in the right place, but, pure and simple, he didn't have the coaching miles on the clock. It was certainly during that time the players and the NZRL started looking at Wayne Bennett and wondering what they were going to do about the World Cup the next year. But there was another difference between the All Golds exhibition team and the New Zealand side: the exhibition team had Ruben Wiki, Stacey Jones and Nigel Vagana all playing, even though they'd retired from the Kiwis.
We were going through a rebuilding phase, so Gary Kemble coming in as a new coach to a team of relatively inexperienced players, it was always going to be a tough gig. It didn't help Gary's cause that we played three tests against Great Britain and lost them all. It was only my second year of playing for the Kiwis and my first trip to Britain, but it wasn't an enjoyable one. It's a place very far away when you're not winning and it's pretty dreary there in the middle of winter. The knives were being sharpened as soon as we lost the first test at Huddersfield 20–14.
But when we lost the second at Hull 44–0, those knives were poised, ready to strike. I tell you, there were some pretty broken guys in the sheds after that game. Roy Asotasi was our captain and he couldn't help letting out a few hints after the second test that things weren't rosy in our Kiwis camp. The media were sniffing around for signs of what was really going on, so when Roy let slip that Gary and Bluey's styles were 'very different' and that the group was 'still trying to gel', that was enough to give the headline writers something to work with. When Gary admitted in an unguarded moment that he was considering resigning if we were whitewashed 3–0 by Great Britain, they had all they needed for a story. In the third test we got off to a good start, leading 12–0, but couldn't seal the deal, and Great Britain steamrolled us 28–22. After the match, Gary told reporters the loss had been 'close enough' for him to carry on as coach and that he was keen to continue.
My life had changed a lot since those days when I was in Wellington and Anna was in Nelson, and we were doing our best to continue our relationship. Anna ended up coming up to Auckland for uni. We hadn't kept in contact much since we'd gone our separate ways, but I still used to catch up with a couple of her friends. We used to still be all in the same group of friends from back home. And these mutual friends would tell me how Anna was getting on and I'd always be really interested.
Then I bumped into her in Auckland a couple of times when her friends would be up, and we'd catch up with them. And then sometimes a couple of my friends would come up and they'd catch up with her and we started bumping into each other more often. I was going away for New Year's with my sister and some mates and I asked Anna if she wanted to come along.
Anna: After spending the weekend at Rhythm and Vines in Gisborne, I think it became clearer to both Simon and me that it was possible we could get back together. It took a few months for us to come to a decision to give it another go. Having remained good friends meant it was easy to get back together. I ended up moving in with him at his flat in Ellerslie.
Steve Mascord, The Daily Telegraph, 16 January 2008, Asotasi leads league mutiny: New Zealand captain Roy Asotasi last night led a full scale revolt against Gary Kemble, insisting he and his teammates had no confidence in their Test coach. In one of the most significant outbursts in the history of the game across the Tasman, prop Asotasi said Wayne Bennett must be appointed to save the Kiwis' World Cup campaign. . . 'I am speaking for all of the players when I say we do not have confidence in the coaching of Gary Kemble,' Asotasi said. 'The players who were on the All Golds tour last year also saw how Gary Kemble operates. It's not his fault. He was dropped in the deep end. But if you are playing with the best players, you expect the best coach.' The skipper said he and clubmate David Kidwell had already approached NZRL chairman Ray Haffenden about their concerns . . . Asotasi said there had been unacceptable behaviour from some officials. 'Myself and Paul Whatuira, as captain and vice captain, went to management on occasions and addressed anything that needed looking at.'
Gary Kemble resigned two days after that article appeared. I really can't remember much from that tour of the UK, just that we lost three tests and one of them was truly bad. My feeling about Gary is that I think it was a tough ask to go from coaching local stuff to the international stuff. Bluey did manage to do it, but it was pretty challenging. I think it would have been difficult for any coach, because we did lose a lot of experience. As well as Ruben, Stacey and Nigel unavailable, Nathan Cayless, one of our most valuable forwards, was injured and we didn't have as much depth as we had in later years. Then we start the campaign with 12 men for nearly the whole game against Australia and get flogged; that's no good for team morale or confidence, and it wasn't Gary Kemble's fault that we lost Steve Matai so early.
Unfortunately, it just didn't work out. There's no point in laying the blame on anyone. And what happened after that was probably the best thing to happen.
Extracted from Simon Mannering - Warrior, written with Angus Gillies, ($49.99 RRP, Mower Books). On-sale now. See upstartpress.co.nz for details of Simon's Auckland signing sessions.