MATT WAS RAISED IN KINGAROY AND GROWING UP HE NEVER FELT LIKE HE WAS NATURALLY TALENTED AT SPORT. BUT, HE APPLIED HIMSELF AND ENDED UP PLAYING 220 NRL GAMES. MATT ALSO CONTRIBUTED TO TWO PREMIERSHIPS AND PLAYED IN STATE OR ORIGIN. MATT RECENTLY RETIRED AND IS NOW PE TEACHING AS WELL AS COACHING AND MENTORING THE NEXT GENERATION OF RUGBY LEAGUE PLAYERS.
What is one highlight of your career?
Looking back, now being retired, I feel really blessed to have played Rugby League at the highest level. There is one moment that stands out above all of the rest and that is winning the 2008 NRL Grand Final with the Manly Sea Eagles. It was my first full year of playing, I debuted in 2007, but only played 13 games. In 2008, I played all of the games and we made the Grand Final and won 40-0, which is the biggest winning margin ever in a Grand Final in NRL history. To be able to do that with a great team, and some greatest blokes I have ever played footy with, was one of the most special occasions. We did win another premiership, but I will always remember the 2008 Grand Final because of the people and the special bond we had all year.
Were you a naturally talented athlete or was it something you really had to work hard at?
I was never a naturally talented, I just had a love for sport. As a young kid, I played Cricket, Volleyball, Rugby League and Touch Football. Any sort of sport that was with my mates and involved working together. I wasn’t ever really talented, I just trained hard. I was always in the backyard, passing the footy around, kicking or doing something with the football. I honed my skills by accident and just through the love of the game. I found my talent later on, I had enough skill to make representative teams as a teenager. I made a QLD team and I was picked up by the Brisbane Broncos when I was 17 years old.
I was with the Brisbane Broncos for three years and that is where I found that my natural abilities weren’t at the same level as others. I still had this passion for the game. I love learning, being with my mates on and off the field and the dynamic of a team sport. It got to my third year with the Broncos, I had a chat to Wayne Bennett about whether I should stay or move on because I had the option to go to Manly.
I asked Wayne Bennett “Do you think I am going to play first grade?” He looked me in the eye and said “No, I don’t think you are going to play first grade here, or anywhere.” Which was a real shock to me, to his credit he was really honest. I remember sitting in my car and pondering life, I thought my life was over, all I wanted to do was play for the Broncos under the greatest coach in history.
He came up to my car that day, knocked on the window and said “Matty, I am not a natural coach either.” It had a really powerful message, even though I wasn’t a natural footy player, I still had potential to play in the first grade team. The message I took was that Wayne wasn’t a natural coach, he just worked hard, he had lots of people criticise him and said that he wouldn’t make it, but he proved them wrong and was determined to do it.
I will never forgot that moment Wayne told me that. It was a turning point in my career and I needed that to put a fire in my belly to prove Wayne wrong. I went to Manly, played under Des Hasler and Geoff Toovey. Won two premierships and played over 200 games in the NRL so it worked out pretty well.
From a coaching perspective, do you think that honesty is the best policy with players?
I think players need to hear honesty and they respect honesty. If they feel the coach is being dishonest it doesn’t help them as a person and it doesn’t help the coach or the team. Obviously, you need to be gentle when discussing it with players as a coach you have the responsibility to build them up, as well as give them the feedback constructively.
You retired last year from Rugby League, after a string of injuries and knee reconstructions. During this time did you find other ways to support your team mates?
Looking back on it, it was a time for me to develop as a person, coach, and a father after not being able to deliver the physical aspect of my life that I was used to. I played 187 games in a row at Manly. I got to the Tigers at 217 games and played three games on the field. I didn’t contribute a lot of games to the club, but I found that I was a senior player with a lot of junior players around with a massive future.
After my second reconstruction, I thought how could I offer value to the team? I had a chat to Jason Taylor about what I could offer and he suggested that I set up a mentoring program, where I could chat about what I did at Manly and what made Manly so successful for so many years, what the coaches did and what the senior players did at the club. I ran workshops and education sessions, it kept me involved and still a part of the team whilst being injured. It was like I was another member of the coaching staff. In the workshops, I spoke about being a good team mate, core values like hard work and respect. I eventually was able to get other senior players involved and ran presentations where we just lived and breathed what our core values were. We became a really resilient team with the workshops we did off the field and it was something I was really proud of.
That is where I evolved from a player to a coach and I have really enjoyed that side of Rugby League. That is where I am at now and I feel really equipped to help other players on their path to success.
Which of your coaches motivated you the most?
Des Hasler, he was meticulous for detail. He covered everything from what types of balls we used at training. If we were training for wet weather games, he would make sure the balls we used at training were wet. You knew that as a player, when you came into a video session or a training session you had to be 100% switched on, if you weren’t he would know. He would pick you out to make sure you knew that he knew that you weren’t as fit, or as switched on as you were last session. Des had everyone on their toes and he had everything ticked off as a coach. I don’t think he was a naturally good coach either, he was just a hard-worker. He just covered everything and had some really great people around him that were able to cover every aspect of a Rugby League player.
I was at Manly for eleven seasons and you saw him evolve from someone who was really straight down the line and wouldn’t joke about anything and then he would add in his personality to the team, which made him a better coach. Players were able to relate to him and get in touch with him in regards to family stuff and he understood that the players lives involved more than just footy. He was a fantastic coach and got the most out of everyone, purely through his work ethic and the example that he set.
From a coaching perspective, how is the club level coaching different to representative level e.g. origin coaching?
It is very different in the club level, you start coaching in September for the following year. So you have all of this time where you can progress training drills, systems you put in place and the strength and conditioning you put in place. With Origin everyone is thrown together. They are the best players of the NRL so they don’t need too much coaching they just need to bond really well and get a good team feel. They make sure they have the structures set out and everyone is across the structures. They train intensely and quickly and get it done. At state of origin level everyone is switched on and has great skills so everyone focuses on their role.
You’re now a qualified PE teacher, what has your rugby league taught you that you can take across to the the classroom?
You learn so much from coaches and the people you are around in how to manage players. In regards to the classroom, I just ensure I have a good routine in place so the kids know what to expect. It is about routine which I have developed as a footy player. Kids respond really well to routine and the same demeanour and personality, it allows the kids to feel safe and for me to get the most out of them. I pride myself on giving the best possible environment for them to be the best player or student that they can be, so they can enhance their skills. They do respond to what kind of vibe you are giving. If you are happy and excited about the lesson they are as well. If you give them motivation, positivity and routine you will get a positive response from the student or the athlete.
You are really passionate about coaching players with all abilities which is one of the reasons you signed up to coach on PlayBook. Tell us more about your experience with that
They are just so genuine and excited about the session. That’s what I love about the all abilities they just get out there and have a crack and they couldn’t care less if they did it perfectly or not. They just enjoy their time with their mates and it gives me that extra motivation when you see the spark in their eyes and how much enjoyment they are getting out of the session. I had an athlete in Sydney, he has Cerebal Palsy and we used to train him every week. He couldn’t catch a footy to start with and the look on his face when he eventually was able to relax his fingers and catch and then pass was incredible.