Gallen: Mal went back on his promise
This is an extract from Heart and Soul by Paul Gallen
At age 34 and after two years out of the jersey, the critics were lining up in 2016 to say my service for Australia was over.
But my focus after returning from a knee injury was on proving to Test coach Mal Meninga that I was worthy of selection for the Anzac Test.
Much was made of a NSWRL dinner during which I happened to be seated next to Mal. It was there that he said to me, 'I don't care about your age or what has happened in the past - I'm going to pick the best team available.'
Once in camp with the Kangaroos, it wasn't long before Mal called a meeting. Invited were Cam Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Darius Boyd, Cooper Cronk and Matt Scott.
I was the only player from NSW in the room. It was impossible for me not to notice that.
I had never had any issues with the boys in that room, especially JT and Smithy. I had played 30 Tests with both of those boys, so I got on fine with them.
But I suppose with ex-Maroons coach Mal there and a coaching staff that included Queenslanders Adrian Lam and Michael Hagan, there was a different feeling in the room for me.
Every other person in this room had come up with the game plans to beat NSW that I would've been on the other end of. Now I'd be plotting defeat with them.
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One of the first things Mal pointed out was that we haven't beaten New Zealand in four Tests. I wasn't involved in those losses, and I was determined to help elevate Australia back to the position of number one in the world.
With the way Mal spoke in that meeting, I can safely say that he is the best coach with regard to motivation that I have ever played under. I knew after just one day of camp under Mal that if he had asked me to run through a brick wall, I would've.
It's the way he talks - his delivery.
With his demeanour, he doesn't rant or rave - he just talks. And what he says is not technical at all. It's about wanting to do things, and wanting to do them more than the opposition. It's about pride in your jersey, and pride in your own performance.
I was completely in awe of the way he spoke. Once he had finished the meeting, I sat down by myself and wondered if he was aware of how influential he is. Or did he have an aura just because he's Mal Meninga and that, as kids, we all knew who he was and how special he was as a player?
Being brutally honest, there was nothing he did the entire week that was one bit technical or structured. It was all man management from Mal. He wanted you to play for the jersey.
It was about the team, but also your own performance and that of the man beside you.
I was completely confident we would beat the Kiwis. The 2013 World Cup team was the best Australian side I had ever played with. And to Mal's credit, the 2016 Anzac Test side featured the core of that 2013 group, so I knew that we would be able to perform well.
In front of 27,724 supporters, we won the match 16-0. To be back and victorious in the green and gold was a great feeling. But to finish as man of the match was incredibly special.
However, there was one element of that Test that I don't think will ever sit well with me. During that Anzac Test camp, Mal said in one of his speeches, "You know what I'm like - we haven't won the last four Tests, so if you go out and win this match, I'll pick you all for the Four Nations tour at the end of the year. And if you win that, I'll pick you all again for the 2017 World Cup."
I sat there and thought, it's highly unlikely I'm going to be around for the World Cup, but if we can get a win here, I'll have one last shot at playing for Australia in the Four Nations.
Well, we won the Anzac Test and I was named man of the match - and that was all before I was able to then win the premiership with Cronulla.
Yet, not only did Mal overlook me for the Four Nations tour, but only two players - Valentine Holmes and James Maloney - from our premiership-winning side were named to tour England at the end of 2016.
Maybe I was off and that man of the match award from the Anzac Test really didn't hold much weight at all.
Ahead of the NSW squad being chosen for Origin I, a handful of commentators left me out of their predicted Blues team. In the end, thankfully coach Laurie Daley chose me to lead the Blues, for what was always going to be my final series in the sky-blue jersey of NSW.
Queensland beat us on our home turf in Sydney, 6-4. It was typical of Queensland. They only scored one try, and so did we. Yet somehow, we finished on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Like on too many previous occasions, we were forced to save the series in Queensland at Suncorp Stadium. It was a massive obstacle, but one we were absolutely confident we could overcome.
We lost 26-16 to the Maroons, who celebrated their series success in front of more than 52,000 home fans. After the loss, like clockwork, Phil 'Gus' Gould took aim at my leadership and the performance of my NSW teammates.
Gus - and he wasn't the only one - declared that I should be omitted from the squad for Origin III.
Not once did Laurie discuss leaving me out of his side. It was an example of how little impact the opinions of others really have on those within the squad who witness first-hand the effort, energy and commitment that a particular group of players invests in each other.
Much was made of Origin III being my farewell game and a chance for me to say goodbye to NSW fans. I would've been hurt if I wasn't picked, not because I wanted to say goodbye to Blues fans, but because I wanted to play for NSW.
In a new-look Blues side, Laurie had one eye on winning the match and the other on the future. He selected my Sharks teammate, Jack Bird, plus Matt Moylan at five-eighth and James 'Teddy' Tedesco on debut at fullback. James Maloney, the regular five-eighth, was chosen to play halfback.
While everyone else wanted to talk about Origin III being my send-off party, I just wanted to win the game, which we did 18-14.
While it was satisfying to win on home soil, albeit a dead rubber, in front of more than 61,000 loyal fans, it was hard to ignore the pain caused by losing the series.
As we shook hands with the Queenslanders, the words Laurie had said earlier in the week sprang to mind. 'There's no way we are going to sit there and listen to them [Queensland] sing "Aye Aye Yippee Yippee Aye" [the Maroons victory song] - we're taking our captain on a lap of honour.'
So after Cam Smith accepted the trophy, I signalled to the boys that we should go and thank our fans. I was oblivious to the fact that Cam was speaking on stage.
What a lot of people don't realise is that, down on the field, you can't hear much of what is being said by those speaking on stage. Around you, there are radio journalists asking for interviews and TV producers pulling you over for a chat live on air.
Some players are talking among themselves and, if you revisit the footage, even Cam's own Queensland teammates are giggling and laughing, oblivious to what he is saying.
So when Cam lifted the trophy, I began to walk towards our fans.
If I had my time over, I would've ensured I was aware that Cam was still speaking. In no way was it ever intended to be a snub against Cam.
I know how it looked; it's easy to be critical from an outsider's point of view and say that we snubbed him and walked away. But I made a point of speaking to Cam the next day. It was very similar to when he phoned me after the negative press the Queensland players involved in the Australian team received when they sang 'Aye Aye Yippee Yippee Aye' following a Test match win. For some reason, there's a perception that Cam and I don't like each other. It's just not true.
He actually raised that perception with me one day, saying, 'Mate, I think the journos care about it a lot more than we do.' But after the backlash following Origin III, I thought it was important to call him.
'Look mate, it wasn't about turning our back on you and walking away from you when you were talking,' I said. 'It was about going to thank the fans and, I'll be honest with you, I wasn't going to sit there and listen to you guys sing "Aye Aye Yippee Yippee Aye".'
I continued by saying, 'Mate, I just don't have the energy for all this rubbish any more. It's such a relief it's over. I've played the villain in Origin for the past couple of years, and I'm done. And that's all I was thinking about. It wasn't directed at you. I just wanted to grab the boys and do one lap to thank the fans.'
Cam was fine about it.
Back in the dressing rooms, we had a private moment with only members of the team allowed inside.
Someone covered the Channel 9 camera, which was positioned on the wall of the room, so I knew I was about to receive some type of special treatment.
Because everyone knows how much I hate beer, Robbie Farah called for silence in the room as he announced that I would now skol a full can of VB.
But that wasn't all. I have a devil tattoo on my backside. And at every NSW camp I was involved in, the boys would always call it the 'demon'. On a rare night of bonding, the saying was, 'When Gal goes out, the demon comes out.'
So after a special night out 'bonding', when it was time to head back to the team hotel, Greg Bird would always say, 'Righto, it's time to send the demon home.' Collectively, they would all take turns smacking my backside as hard as they could.
And so, inside the ANZ Stadium dressing room, with the players and staff yelling and cheering, I moved towards the centre of a ring formed around me for Robbie, who had grabbed a belt to whip my backside as hard as he could. 'Let's send the demon home for the last time,' Robbie laughed.
The following morning, I woke up with welts the size of tennis balls on my backside.
It wasn't a series win, but it was a nice way to end my State of Origin career.
I'd had enough of the sideshow that comes with Origin. Criticism from past NSW players and key Blues supporters, including Gus Gould, was disappointing.
Each of those past NSW Origin players and Gus - who had coached the Blues - know how challenging every Origin is mentally and physically, and the pressure that is involved.
But the last two years of my Origin career, in 2015 and 2016, I lacked support from our own, which is not what Origin is about.
And so, when I walked out of ANZ Stadium for the final time as a Blue, I knew that I was done.
This is an extract from Heart and Soul by Paul Gallen, Allen&Unwin, $34.99