Acclaimed Storm coach Craig Bellamy might have led his side to the NRL Telstra Premiership and the World Club Championship over the past six months, but in 2012 the former also suffered a humbling personal defeat.
Desperate to restock his forward ranks with the likely departure and retirement of several of his star forwards, midway through last season Bellamy picked up the phone and called England. The call was a job offer to an old friend: three-time former Storm grand final star Jeff Lima. Things were looking promising for Bellamy to nab his target… that is until former assistant coach and current South Sydney mentor Michael Maguire also expressed an interest.
“I was about that close [to joining Melbourne],” Lima tells NRL.com, indicating a one-centimetre gap between his thumb and forefinger.
“I was going to go back to Melbourne but I thought the challenge here [at Souths] was bigger than it was in Melbourne. Melbourne were a good team to go back to – most of my former teammates are still there – but I thought coming to Sydney was a bigger challenge and I wanted to take that challenge.”
Reuniting with the man they call ‘Madge’ – Lima’s former coach at Wigan and Bellamy’s former right-hand man at the Storm – proved too attractive for the stocky Auckland-born front-rower who has played Tests for both Samoa and New Zealand. The possibility of helping South Sydney create history was the icing on the cake.
“I’m always up for a challenge and there’s a big one here at South Sydney,” Lima says.
“I got a call from Madge asking if I wanted to come here… so I thought the change, I’d give it a go, give it a crack. I thought [coming to Souths] could be history-making.
“I’ve had a hell of a ride with Madge – I’ve been to Wigan with him and I thought I might stick with him. He’s always got the best out of me, like Bellamy.”
Solid in his first game in South Sydney colours, running for 70 metres in just 27 minutes, Lima says the hard-working, well-drilled Rabbitohs line-up shares very similar traits with his highly successful former clubs.
“I think Souths are a club that’s on the rise,” says Lima, who plays his 100th NRL game on Monday night.
“They’re certainly going places after last year – they were the surprise packets in 2012 – and this year they’re building on what they had… in a couple of years they’ve come a long way.
“They’re pretty similar the coaching staff – they’ve had a similar coaching staff in Wigan and Melbourne… Michael Maguire and (trainer) Troy Thomson and those fellas… the playing style, it’s becoming what Madge wants and we’re certainly going to be a threat.”
This week Lima’s Rabbitohs face a Cronulla line-up that has endured a week from hell but came out the other side with an inspirational victory against the Titans. The South Sydney prop is no stranger to team controversy either, but he says despite the disappointment of the stripped premierships and titles at the Storm, he’s only ever been focused on the future – even when he was weighing up the opportunity to return to Melbourne.
“[The salary cap drama at Melbourne] is in the past now – you can live in the past but I prefer to live in the present and look to the future,” Lima reveals.
“Souths are a team going places and I’m enjoying the ride. We want to make amends for what happened last year…”
For those wondering why Lima was recruited to the Rabbitohs, fans need only inspect his glittering record. The Wests Tiger of 2004, Melbourne star from 2006-2010 and Wigan Warrior the past two seasons is a genuine winner. A stalwart of the Storm’s grand final teams from 2007-2009; a Lance Todd trophy winner as man of the match in the 2011 Challenge Cup Final; a player who Maguire clearly believes he can depend on. It’s clear the two have a special bond, a friendship and respect that have resulted in Lima following him across the globe – twice.
“[At Wigan] we lost in the semis in 2012… we just didn’t have that driving force we had when Madge was there, that’s probably why we didn’t make it… when he left it was very different,” Lima reveals.
“He hasn’t changed Madge, he might be losing a bit of hair though [laughs].
He still wants the best from his players and he challenges us as players and big things like that. He certainly wants the best for this club and he’s taking the club places.
“He loves his football – you could talk to him all day about football. You could ask him a question and he’d give you an answer across two pages!”
Lima, who has featured in finals rugby league every year since 2006 except for the Storm’s horror 2010 season when they were stripped of all premiership points, believes the Rabbitohs, just like his former Storm side, have title-winning potential with players including Greg Inglis, Adam Reynolds, John Sutton, Sam Burgess and Issac Luke on their payroll. And with Lima – a proven big-game performer – they’re a better chance of taking those important finals steps in 2013 than any time since their last premiership in 1971.
“It’s not much different [at Souths to Melbourne and Wigan] – obviously the guys you mentioned, they’re getting better and better every year,” Lima reveals.
“They’ve all had a taste of Origin or representative football now and we’ve got to build the team around those fellas… that’s what Madge is trying to do. With Sutton, Reynolds, Inglis… we build around them and we’ve obviously got a great future.
“Everyone dreams to play finals – obviously it’s a bit different to the regular rounds – when you make the finals you really want to put your best foot forward.”
Lima’s presence in the myrtle and green will prove a huge boost for the Rabbitohs, particularly come finals. And Bellamy knows it, even if he hasn’t said as much just yet.
“I’m not sure [how he feels about missing out on the signing] really,” Lima reveals.
“I still text him every now and then and wish him luck… whenever I see him I catch up with him. He’s always up for a chat.”
Bellamy mightn’t feel like chatting if Lima helps the Rabbitohs to premiership success – and victory against the Storm – this season, though.