Wendell Sailor's incredible charisma was matched by his immense talent on the field, making his mark as one of rugby league's most destructive wingers.
A dual international, Sailor scored 127 tries in 222 first-grade appearances in rugby league. He started in 1993 at the Broncos, where he was part of four premierships, before moving to rugby union in 2002.
Sailor came back to league with a bang at the St George Illawarra Dragons in 2008 to cap off an always entertaining career.
Legend Q&A: Wendell Sailor
Let's start with your junior career. Were you always a winger growing up?
No, no. So I played for Sarina Crocodiles, the great club that guys like Dale Shearer, Martin Bella, Kevin Campion and Daly Cherry-Evans came through. Five-eighth and centre were my two main positions.
When did you start to fill out and play on the wing?
I played senior A-Grade when I was 16, they put me on the wing. But then when I played Queensland 18s and stuff, I was in the centres. And obviously, at the Broncos, Wayne [Bennett] moved me to the wing; they had enough strike centres.
When I was 18, I was Queensland vice-captain. Me and Chris McKenna were the centres and the captain and back-rower was actually Anthony Seibold. We've always been best mates.
How did it come about that you were brought to the Broncos? You played six games in 1993 when Brisbane won the competition but didn't feature in the decider.
I'd been knocked back by about four or five clubs. Through the juniors, I could always make North Queensland but I could never make Queensland. So guys like Brett Dallas, Butch Fatnowna who was one of the youngest Broncos ever to debut, they were sort of the stars around North Queensland and every year they'd make virtually the state sides.
The Dragons, Illawarra, the Bulldogs and the Gold Coast Seagulls knocked me back and I was getting a bit disheartened. [Legendary Broncos recruiter] Cyril Connell saw me play [in the] Confraternity Shield and he actually said to Wayne, 'Mate, I think this kid can play a bit'. I was lucky enough to win Player of the Confraternity Shield - part of the prize was a week at training at the Broncos.
So after they won the '92 grand final, the '93 pre-season I got to join them. That was when Alf [Allan Langer], Steve Renouf and everyone came back. I walked in and I'm walking and talking to the Pearl and Lazzo [Glenn Lazarus] – premiership players – and it was unbelievable because [under] 21s, reserve grade and first grade would train together in the pre-season.
If nothing else it was going to be a good experience for me and I trained my arse off that week. Luckily enough Wayne offered me a contract. But he said, 'Mate, to be honest I've seen you play and you're a bit brash and bit on yourself and I don't know if you fit our culture.' [That was just] after sacking Wally Lewis, so obviously he wasn't into big egos.
Wayne clearly had a big influence on your career. You guys are completely different personalities, so what made you click?
Even though we were different personalities I think we learned to respect one another. Everything I am I suppose he is not. He's quite a humble guy. I think he likes blokes who work hard and that's the thing. I think he saw the showman side of me but there's a side of me that would go the extra mile for the team.
I think when I retired he actually said, 'If I was picking my best 13 I'd have Wendell Sailor every day, because he's a winner and blokes want to play with him'. For me, that was a nice way to finish my career from a bloke who is one of the greatest coaches of all time and he didn't want a bar of me [at the start].
Sometimes there can be a bit of a cover; you peel away the layers and you get to see the real people. And that's what Wayne was good at when he saw the real you. Have a look at the success he's had over the years with certain players like Darius [Boyd], Jamie Soward, Ben Hornby, obviously Locky [Darren Lockyer] and that – he's got the best out of them.
In 1994 you made your Australian debut and toured England. What was the experience like?
It was unbelievable. Me, Steve Menzies, a young Jason Smith, Jimmy Serdaris – we were the pups of it. Me and Steve Menzies, we're still good mates now, we play golf together, do a lot of functions. It was just so surreal for us because we're on tour and there are guys like Bradley Clyde, Ricky Stuart, Andrew Ettingshausen. A year or two ago we were in school watching these guys – all of a sudden we're playing mid-week games with them.
We thought when Bob Fulton picked us we'd play a few of the mid-weekers ... I was lucky because I think Rod Wishart was injured for the first [Test]. And I think Bob Fulton backed me – he just went, 'Mate, you're playing great footy' – I scored two tries in the first game against Cumbria – and he said, 'You're in'.
Mal Meninga presented me my first Australian cap at Wembley. I'll never forget it.
The Broncos won the Super League premiership in '97 and took out the inaugural NRL title the next year. Did the team expect to win in that period?
We had a pretty good side, don't get me wrong. Because of the Super League year, Anthony Mundine was there in '97 and then he moved back to the Dragons. But we just knew if we played to our best that not many teams would beat us. What we really wanted in '98 was to play Newcastle [the 1997 ARL premiers] because I know that people saw the ARL as the fair dinkum premiership and they didn't want to recognise [Super League].
We took it upon ourselves in '98 to come out of the blocks and make sure we went back-to-back. And that's what we did. We did it against the Bulldogs in the grand final … They were up at half-time [12-10] and then we just came out of the blocks in the second half and absolutely annihilated them.
Tonie Carroll played the house down. Gordie Tallis got the Clive Churchill [Medal]. We sort of joke with Gordie saying, 'Come on mate, you've got to give the medal to Tonie Carroll. Give it to Tunza, he was the best on the park!' We had a phenomenal side. It was great.
You had a distinguished Queensland career, playing 14 official State of Origin matches. How passionate were you about representing your state?
When I was growing up, my heroes were Gene Miles, Wally Lewis, Dale Shearer and all these guys … I always wanted to play for Queensland. I never thought I could play for Australia; I just wanted to represent my state. And because my dad had done so much for me over the years, that 'Sailor' across the back of your [jersey], that was one of my goals – to make sure I represented my family.
It's so hard to earn but once you get there it's certainly worthwhile because you're not just representing your state, you're representing your family name and the people of Queensland which is a great honour.
My best Origin moment would have to be when Allan Langer came back from England [in 2001] and we beat the Blues. We won the first one, they beat us in the second one, and we needed an SOS and Alf came back. Alf scored a try in the right-hand corner and I remember picking him up, just hugging him.
When he walked into the camp, we just got this sense of confidence. Webby [Carl Webb] and Gordie and Locky and all of us, we just looked at each other like, 'Alf's back!' It was like the messiah had returned. I know they say Wally Lewis is the king, but let me tell you, when Alf walked in – there's nothing like him on or off the field.
Would Alfie rank up there with your all-time favourite teammates?
Undoubtedly. It's not just what he brings on the field, it's what he brings off the field as well. He's got this humility about him but he's a larrikin at the same time … I can honestly say I love the bloke.
At the Broncos, I know Wayne gets a lot of credit, but I don't think [Langer] has got enough credit for what he's done for the Broncos and rugby league. I'm glad there was a statue last year of Alf [at Suncorp Stadium] – that was a long time coming.
After 2001 you decided to go to rugby union and take up a new challenge. Did you consider staying in league and moving away from the Broncos?
I had a few offers to go to other [NRL] clubs over that period of time. But for me, I always wanted to play for the Broncos and then if I moved away from that, I wanted to challenge myself and go to rugby union.
I used to watch these wingers like Jonah Lomu … these big, powerful wingers - not that we didn't have many powerful wingers in rugby league. It was a goal of mine to play against Jonah. I think out of all the wingers over the years – Jonah, it just says it all. He's iconic. I wanted to play against him. I'm glad I chose to play rugby union for five years. It was tougher than I anticipated but certainly worthwhile.
Your union career ended in unfortunate circumstances after you failed a recreational drugs test. Did you think you'd come back to league had that not happened?
Well, look. When I got suspended from rugby union, that was all on me. There were rules put in place, I'd got in trouble a couple of times and I didn't respect the game. I didn't respect sport at that time. I was doing things that I knew I shouldn't have been doing.
I supposed what I loved is when I hit rock bottom and you get that help and people are around, some of the greats in rugby league reached out. There was Alf, obviously, Wayne Bennett was there, my mates and that. The best thing for me was Gene Miles and Artie Beetson – two of the most iconic not just Queenslanders but rugby league people.
They reached out to me and said, 'We know you made a mistake, we know you're a good person, we want you to come and do some grassroots stuff with us through the Queensland FOGS [Former Origin Greats]. It's not about the money or anything, there are opportunities, we'll fly you here, fly you there.' I was going up to Mornington Island, going out west to do some stuff with the Indigenous kids.
I suppose for me, if I got lost along the way, I found my way back with rugby league. Rugby league gives you second chances and it's what you do with those second chances. David Gallop [then NRL CEO] was the same, saying, 'When Wendell Sailor's done his time, I'm more than happy for him to come back'.
You made your NRL return midway through 2008…
They used to boo me, the fans – they used to just hate me. 'Sailor, you're a wanker. Sailor, drop the ball. Sailor, you can't catch'. They used to hammer me. But it was funny, when I walked into the Dragons, the players were great. They accepted me but I had to earn my stripes. I had to go back to reserve grade, Shellharbour, Burleigh Bears … It wasn't about the money for me but I was finishing on my terms.
As you said, your league comeback came for Shellharbour – which you dubbed 'Dellharbour' – in a Jim Beam Cup match against Erina. What was that like?
It was great, it was at Ron Costello Oval. I was nervous because I was playing with some of the young Dragons players … I think they had a record crowd of five-and-a-half thousand. It was different to what I was used to because the headlights were on on the cars around the field like I grew up with in Mackay and Sarina, the old-school kind of footy.
Anyway, at half-time we were down 22-0. I remember Walshy [coach David Walsh] said to me, 'Dell, you got anything to say?' I said, 'Boys, whatever we do, we've got to make sure we put in the second-half. Let's win the second-half and make sure we give our fans something to cheer about because we've been embarrassing'. Sure enough, we ended up scoring 30 points, I was lucky enough to score two tries, and we won 30-22.
I remember walking off the field and my daughter was in my arms. It was just great to be back in rugby league.
What are your memories of your final season in 2009 with the Dragons? The team won the minor premiership and it seemed like you had a lot of fun as well.
We were so confident in what we had … It was a typical Wayne Bennett-coached side. We didn't have the most skilful players but had a tough team. Dean Young through the middle, Darius Boyd played well at the back, Sowie [Jamie Soward] used to kick teams to death, he was clutch in a lot of games. Then we had Brett Morris, Jeremy Smith. We had a tough forward pack. Mick Weyman got his second chance.
Wayne bought Mick Weyman and I said, 'Mate, why are buying Mick Weyman?' Wayne can turn these players that no one wants to touch into [stars]. I think he ended up playing for NSW and Australia through Wayne Bennett.
We ended up winning a lot of games that year ... I think Parramatta got us. We beat them the week before [in the final round of the regular season] 30-0 or something. I think they had two players out, Eric Grothe and someone else, who came back the next week and Jarryd Hayne was on fire as well.
They came back to Kogarah [in the first week of the finals] and they turned it on. We didn't have any answers. I think we got too confident from the week before and the year we had.
We had to go to Brisbane the week after and all of a sudden Brisbane were red-hot too … I think they unleashed Dave Taylor on us and played some pretty good football [and beat us]. And when you've got a bloke like Locky there, it hurts a little bit too.
That's virtually what ended it for me. There was a young bloke called Jason Nightingale coming through and I thought it was the right time for me to go. I made a decision about four or six weeks later that that was it for me.
Despite going out in straight sets that finals series, it must've been good to finish on your terms?
What was even better was I got to get the respect back and finish on my terms, and that came through grassroots stuff … I had another year to go on my contract and Wayne said, 'How are you feeling your body's holding up?' And I said, 'Mate, I think I'm right to go'. He said, 'You can go again but you're going to be playing reserve grade to start because Nightingale and Morris are going to start'.
He told me what I didn't really want to hear but I sort of knew anyway that it was coming to a close at the end of 2009 because the pace of the game was getting a bit too quick and my body wasn't there to go with some of the speedsters.
The lucky thing for me was I got to play in the [inaugural] Indigenous All Stars … Neil Henry is the bloke I've got to thank because he called me and he said if the fans vote you in, I'm more than happy to [play you]. I think I finished fifth or sixth in the fans' poll, so it worked out well.
I trained with the Dragons that pre-season, two or three sessions a week, kept myself fit to play in the game and give it the respect it deserves ... I'll forever be grateful to Artie Beetson and guys like Preston Campbell, because without those guys we wouldn’t have had that game. To score the first try and be part of history is something I'll never forget.
How is it now with your son Tristan coming through at the Dragons? Do you get just as big a buzz watching him as in your playing days?
I get more of a buzz. Anyone who doesn't get more of a buzz out of seeing their son or daughter play, you're kidding yourself. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was before he debuted against the Roosters [last year]. I know he's done all the hard work to get there and I love everything about when he plays.
We don't talk too much footy and when we do talk footy it's just about certain players or how training is going. It's funny to see my wife support him the same way she supported me [in my career]. We’ve got certain meals that we like, there are certain things that we like to do.
I like to let him have his own space, which is good. I think you have to. I try not to comment on everything about him but I'm really proud of him and I think if he gets his opportunity this year he won't let it go … I wish I had most of his work ethic when I played.