Matt Parsons went about his business quietly in the engine room as superstars like Andrew Johns, Danny Buderus and Ben Kennedy took the headlines in Newcastle's 2001 premiership season.
The big man from Werris Creek had overcome personal tragedy to kick off his career at Souths before moving to the Knights in 2000 when the Rabbitohs were excluded from the competition.
And when it was all said and done in the NRL, Parsons went back to where it all began, playing a season at his junior club Werris Creek to give something back.
You enjoyed plenty of success with Newcastle after moving there in 2000 but it wasn't such a happy hunting ground the year before when you visited Marathon Stadium as a Rabbitoh was it?
If I recall correctly, it was a 60-0 drubbing at the hands of Newcastle that day. It was 30-0 at half-time, and Russell Crowe came into our dressing room to try to spur the boys on. He goes, ‘Righto you blokes, repeat after me 'GUTS!’ And there was a bit of a whimper from the rest of us: ‘guts’. Then he goes ‘PRIDE!’, and the same quiet response from us: ‘pride’. And he goes: ‘No, you blokes! Get some more guts in your game!’, but it ended up 30-0 in the second half as well, so his pep talk that particular day didn’t go down that well.
Rumour has it that one of your team-mates took umbrage at what the Gladiator said and confronted him about it. Is there any truth in that?
There were quite a few confrontations that year with Russell and some of Russell’s associates that he had hanging with him in our rooms. But what makes that game even more memorable is that I arrived in Newcastle the next year and every orientation day for new players at the club, Mark Hughes would give a spiel about how ‘Parso’ was involved in the biggest winning margin in the club’s history but just happened to be playing for Souths that day. As the years went by, he’d also include that I was part of one of the worst losses in the club’s history when I was playing for Newcastle. (64-14 to Cronulla at Shark Park in 2002). So Hughesy turned it around on me twice, and every year he’d use the same line.
Apart from that loss, and other developments that year for Souths, 1999 was pretty good for you personally. You won Dally M Prop of the Year. How important was that for your career?
I actually went to my first Souths function in a long time during this year, and Craig Coleman got up and spoke about 1999 and our achievements, because that was the year we got kicked out. One of the points he made was that I did get that award, which was a pretty big thing personally. It came down to the fact that Craig put a lot of faith in me and I had a great relationship with him, and that helped with my football. But the Dally Ms that year were on the Tuesday night, I think, and I was on Mad Monday when I got a phone call from Geoff Carr to tell me I had to go to the Dally Ms. I told Geoff I couldn’t go, because I’d still be on the drink, but he said, ‘No, you have to go to the Dally Ms’. So I spoke to our club but I couldn’t get a seat on the table because the officials had taken all the seats. Eventually they found me a seat, so I tried to get my wife to come with me but I couldn’t get a seat for her anywhere in the building, so it bobbed up out of nowhere.
How did a young bloke from Werris Creek end up at South Sydney?
I actually went to St George first. I went from school to St George in 1992, and it was one of the first years in a long time that St George had signed a lot of country kids. There were seven of us that came from the bush to St George, and I ended up at a house in Kogarah with blokes like Nathan Brown, Gorden Tallis, Scotty Ingram and Scott Park. There were seven young country kids all thrown into a house together, so I started at St George before I got to South Sydney. I had three years at St George but my second year there, my dad had a heart attack in the grandstand at Cronulla and died in St George Hospital, so I lost Dad when I was playing Flegg there. Then I went to England and played three months there, back when the seasons were in reverse and I had an off-season in England, but when I was coming back from England, my mum was killed in a car accident coming to Sydney to pick me up. So I lost both my parents in the space of 11 months when I was at St George. I was top age in Under-21s, and I don’t ever recall getting a letter from St George saying my services are no longer required, but I just needed a bit of time away from the game. So we drifted apart and I found myself down in Nowra playing footy down there for a couple of years, and Souths signed me from there.
Obviously you had to find a new home at the end of 1999 when Souths were kicked out, so how did you end up in Newcastle?
I was actually quite lucky how that all rolled around, because myself and Craig Wing were the only two guys at Souths that had guaranteed contracts offered to us to play for Souths in 2000. Even though there was a big chance we were going out of the comp, Souths Juniors were actually going to pay ‘Wingy’ and I. But Scotty Campbell, one of my old trainers at St George and Souths, was at Newcastle as Warren Ryan’s right-hand man. Scotty actually rang me and said, ‘We’d like you to come up here. Chief (Paul Harragon) is retiring – his knees are gone – and we need someone to come up here and fill Chief’s spot’. So I had a meeting with them in the middle of ’99 and signed an unofficial agreement with them and that’s where I was off to at the end of that year.
You went on to play more than 100 games for the Knights during a golden period for the club. What made that time so special?
I loved my time at St George, and I loved my time at Souths – it was unreal – but I don’t think I truly got the whole team side of playing footy until I got to Newcastle. I understood there were personal achievements at those other clubs, and trying to get ahead, but it wasn’t until I got into that culture at that footy club with that group of people in that town, that I truly understood what it meant to give everything on the team’s behalf.
What was it about Newcastle and the Knights that made you feel that way?
It was that group of guys, no doubt, and the fact that the majority of them were Newcastle born and bred, so they got it. They got that town, they got what it was about, and they got that relationship with the supporters, so everyone understood what we were trying to do. Talent helps, too. You can’t make strawberry jam out of pig poo. Certainly the talent there was a hell of a lot better than where I’d been, and just the fact everyone worked for each other. I truly believe that the players actually got that from the supporters and the town itself.
All that culminated in the 2001 grand final. What led to the planets aligning that night?
A lot of what happened in 2001 can be traced back to 2000, because we were in the game before the grand final up 14 at half-time against the Roosters and we got beat. So we missed the opportunity of even playing in the grand final in 2000, then we lost Dave Fairleigh, Matty Johns, Tony Butterfield and Pete Shiels, so we lost a few blokes from that 2000 side, but the nucleus was still there in 2001 and we’d been through that heartache of not making it the year before. But the best thing from that week for us was going down to Sydney for the grand final breakfast and Newcastle people lining the streets for us just to go to the grand final breakfast in the middle of the week. We were all pretty relaxed characters, so that kicked off the week for us. The other thing for us was deciding where we were going to stay before the grand final. We always stayed at Parramatta the night before games out that way or when we played at Homebush, so even though we were playing against Parramatta in the grand final, we still all chose to not change our routine and just stay in the middle of Eels territory, and just do the things we normally did before a game.
Looking back at the 2001 Grand Final
Weren’t you supposed to be underdogs that night?
We were heavy underdogs because Parramatta had a great year that year and they’d set a lot of scoring records. But I remember having a conversation about that a couple of years later with Nathan Brown, and ‘Browny’ saying, ‘If you look back at their team on paper and you look back at yours, how you were underdogs in that game, I’ll never know’. But at that stage, a lot of our great players like Steve Simpson, Timana Tahu, Matty Gidley, those type of guys, they hadn’t really done what they went on to achieve in footy. So if you look back now, we had a super team – and we knew we did then – but I can see why Parramatta were favourites for that particular game.
So what are your fondest memories of playing for Newcastle?
That’s easy – team-mates and supporters. My fondest memories are how much I enjoyed being with my team-mates, and the people in that town. It blows me away. I’ve been finished for 15 years and still go back there now and people are still really, really friendly and their memories of those times are pretty good. I guess it was a good time for them because their football team was winning a lot, so easily, my fondest memories are my team-mates and the people in the town.
What have you been up to since you retired?
I’ve had a couple of businesses – I’ve got a milk run now and I’ve been in a newsagency – and I’m also working for Crawfords Freightlines at Werris Creek, so I’m enjoying that as well. I spend a fair bit of time around basketball now as well. I’ve got an 18-year-old son who’s doing quite well at that, and he’s trying to get overseas to play. My middle fella is playing a bit of footy and he’s back playing again after a bad broken leg, and my youngest fella is a pretty handy basketballer too, so I spend a lot of time in and around coaching basketball.
What has rugby league meant to you?
It’s been everything to me. For me, it wasn’t necessarily a financial path but it certainly made me grow a lot as a person and I matured a lot, and I had to go through a lot of hard stuff along the way. I probably wasn’t a guy that, ability-wise, was that gifted, but everything I was ever able to achieve in footy was just from hard work and putting in all the time.
Do you feel you over-achieved, under-achieved or were you satisfied with what you achieved?
I have not one regret from anything in my footy career. I could not have been any better that what I was. I tried as hard as I possibly could. I probably didn’t play that well on occasions, but it wasn’t from a lack of trying. I can never, ever remember not trying as hard as I could. I certainly tried every time I played and I could not have got one more bit out of what I had.