There was an intriguing moment of synergy in Sam Thaiday’s life during the off-season that likely bypassed the casual observer but didn’t escape the veteran forward’s attention. When Thaiday stood at the altar to marry long-term partner Rachel on December 4 last year, it was the culmination of a long and eventful journey for the 26-year-old that began with a career-defining decision taken three years ago and ended with his appointment as the Broncos’ new captain following the retirement of club legend Darren Lockyer.
“Because it wouldn’t have happened without Rachel,” he muses during a lengthy chat with NRL.com this week. “A lot of it had to do with my wife. She was the slap in the face that I needed – and you do need that in your life. She was pretty much the only one that would tell me the truth.”
Thaiday is referring to his fanciful ways of old, when beers with the boys and, more tellingly, a pack or two of cigarettes, was standard fare when he wasn’t on the training paddock.
“I had friends that were encouraging it, going out with me on big weekends and buying packets of cigarettes for me and all of these things,” Thaiday continues. “She was the only one that would tell me the truth – that I was wrecking my life and how much of a better, healthier football player I would be if I gave up.
“If she hadn’t, I would still be doing the same thing today and would still be the ‘cruisy’ football player that I was back then.”
The story of Sam Thaiday’s evolution as a footballer isn’t a new one, but it is certainly a tale worth exploring more deeply given his recent elevation to the captaincy and Brisbane’s impressive 5-1 start to the season under his leadership – a record few thought possible following the retirement of legendary five-eighth Darren Lockyer.
Similarly, there was a time when Thaiday could never have imagined that he would be the man to succeed Lockyer at the Broncos.
“I mean, I was enjoying my football and I was making rep teams but I really wasn’t giving it my best,” he recalls.
“It’s amazing how much of a difference it does make. Even just in general everyday life I’m a lot less tired these days. I don’t eat as much junk food, I don’t crave those sugary treats whereas in the past I wasn’t very strict with those sorts of things.
“I think it has made me a lot stronger with my willpower as well. A lot of the time I can turn away from things, whether it be a couple of nights on the grog or takeaway food. I noticed more of a difference away from the field before I noticed one on the field, but the difference with football now is that every week I play I give it my best.”
It’s a philosophy that Thaiday has adopted in his captaincy of the club, admitting that he has high expectations of those that line up alongside him in a Brisbane jersey each weekend.
“I’ve had some great captains before me and the beauty of the last captain I had in Darren Lockyer was that when he spoke, he spoke with purpose and it was to the point,” he explains.
“I try to do the same thing. If I talk too much I overcomplicate things and too many thoughts go through blokes’ heads. I try and keep it brief and to the point when I do say something.
“A lot of the time I’ll tell the boys before a game that the only thing I ask of them is not to let one another down. That’s as simple as I can put it and that is what I want from them. I don’t want to come from the field thinking that anyone has been let down by anyone else.
“At the same time I want to lead by my actions on the field and off the field. I’m always challenging myself.”
Thaiday also describes himself as a hands-on captain, regularly conversing with the club’s crop of rising stars and happy to offer direction when needed.
A case in point is Lockyer’s replacement in the No.6 jersey Corey Norman, who takes on NSW Origin hopeful Terry Campese in a mouth-watering match-up when the Broncos meet the Raiders at Suncorp Stadium tonight.
The 20-year-old Norman was an obvious focal point of public and media scrutiny throughout the pre-season and the early rounds yet even under such intense pressure he has barely put a foot wrong.
“He is enjoying the ups and downs of playing in that position and I think his confidence is growing each week that he plays,” Thaiday says. “He is never going to be a Darren Lockyer and I think he knows that. He can only be the best player he can be… and the best player he can be is really working out well for us at the moment. I’m always encouraging him to play his own brand of footy and put his stamp on the game.”
Likewise, it was Lockyer’s influence that played a key role in Thaiday’s own development as a leader within the club. Since taking his football more seriously and becoming a member of Brisbane’s leadership group the following season, Thaiday has gone on to become a regular in the Queensland and Australian sides with 16 Tests and 15 Origin appearances already behind him.
“Particularly the last couple of years in in that leadership group here at the Broncos, it has really helped me out a lot in taking over the reins from Locky,” he said.
“He taught me a lot about what it takes to fill that role. Having said that, it helps that we’re winning at the moment. It takes the pressure off me and takes a lot of pressure off from the media. It takes a lot of that external pressure off, so the only pressure at the moment is internal and what we can control. That’s training hard and playing good football every week.”
While Thaiday continues to revel in the path his own life has taken both on and off the field, he insists he is well aware of the responsibilities that come with captaining the Broncos and is endeavouring to use both his standing in the game and his life experience as an example to others. Most recently he became an ambassador for south-east Queensland health initiative ‘Deadly Choices’ which encourages Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders to quit smoking and live a healthy lifestyle.
“It is something that I’m passionate about,” Thaiday explains. “I have a lot of family members that have alcohol problems, are chronic smokers, diabetics – all these things that I try and help out with are very near and dear to me. I’d love to get a ruler and rule a line through it.
“I try to put a face to this campaign, to go into the communities and really talk to people about Deadly Choices, eating well and living well. A lot of times those campaigns get overlooked unless there is a face to it or someone willing to drive the message home.
“That’s why a lot of the time I do put my hand up. I realise that people look up to me and listen to what I say.
“I know from my own experiences – I was trying to fit in and trying to be cool and it turned out that all it was doing was holding me back. That’s the kind of story I tell when I go into classrooms and communities.
“A lot of the time you don’t need all these [anti-smoking] slogans, people just want to hear your story. I think they do respond to that very well. They see you on TV every week and they put you up on a pedestal – they don’t think that I was just like them and that I could change… how much that change could not only change my life but change the way I was playing footy. It probably made me a better football player for quitting smoking as well.”
FIVE MINUTES WITH SAM THAIDAY
What’s your favourite TV show?
“I’m a sucker for reality shows. I’m right into The Biggest Loser at the moment but when My Kitchen Rules was on I loved that. Anything on the cooking channels… I always get in trouble from Rachel for watching cooking shows.”
So you’d be looking forward to MasterChef then?
“Oh, I can’t wait.”
“Plain and simple is good. If someone can cook me a very, very nice steak, some veges on the side, a bit of broccolini, maybe some beans and a beautiful mashed potato, I’m done. But the steak has to be nice and juicy and succulent. Apart from that I love a Sunday roast. We always cook a Sunday roast at our house and if I miss out it’s not the same for the whole week.”
When you don’t have a game to play, what’s your idea of a perfect Saturday?
“Up early in the morning, to the beach, take the dogs, go for a swim, have brekky, read the paper, then kick the feet up and go back down to the beach for the rest of the afternoon.”
What would Rachel say is your worst habit?
“Not pulling the shower curtain across and then she gets angry at me because it doesn’t dry properly.”
If you weren’t playing footy, what would you be doing?
“I quite enjoyed doing woodwork and metalwork at school. I did graphics at school as well so I think I would probably be building something somewhere.”