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Legend Q&A: Dene Halatau

Andrew Johns ... John Skandalis ... Dene Halatau.

Few players in rugby league history have been left stranded one short of a magical personal milestone but for Dene Halatau, it was 249 more games than he ever envisioned at two clubs close to his heart.

The former Wests Tigers and Bulldogs utility's career spanned 13 seasons and included 134 starting games across four positions plus 115 games from the bench. He also represented New Zealand on 15 occasions.

Starting off his NRL career under Tim Sheens in the centres, Halatau soon shifted to the pack ahead of the premiership-winning 2005 season. 

He produced no greater effort than his two-try performance at lock in the 2005 preliminary final against St George Illawarra.

In 2019, Halatau was rewarded with life membership at the Wests Tigers. caught up with Halatau recently to discuss some of the key moments in his decorated career.

Legend Q&A

You were born in New Zealand before moving to Australia aged 4 – what was that move like for your family and did it have an impact on any sporting ambitions?

My dad came over in the late '80s when there was a lot of work in building and construction so we packed up and followed him. Rugby union in that time was still fairly dominant in New Zealand but he always played league.

When we moved to Australia the first thing he did was register my brother and me in the game with Wentworthville. I was a mad Balmain fan and my brother was a Bulldogs supporter. We got jerseys each and were just footy heads from the moment we landed in Sydney.

You were one of the more versatile players the game has seen, was it something you prided yourself on or in an ideal world were you hoping to settle on one spot?

Early on when I played in the outside backs I was either a winger or fullback and then got into junior reps and began to play in the middle at lock but I was never the biggest guy. I could do a job but with no great impact.

When I got into first grade I started in the centres but Tim Sheens needed me to slot into hooker when Darren Senter got injured early in a game. I'd never played there before in a club match but knocked over 70-odd minutes and got moved around from there.

I would've loved to have stayed on the edge but as the game evolved I was a bit too small and more suited to a roving role. It's something I got used to and adjusted to, I probably played more games in the end than I would've if I stayed in one position.

Dene Halatau is swamped after scoring in 2004.
Dene Halatau is swamped after scoring in 2004. ©NRL Photos

This season will mark 15 years since the 2005 grand final - does it still feel like yesterday?

I don't think about it being that long ago but a lot of it is still fresh in the memory bank. When I see bits of footage and pictures from that time and how young we all look it hits home how long ago it was.

Every year clubs have their group of young guys coming through but I can remember just how tight we all were. I was 22 at the time, Benji was 20, Liam Fulton and Bryce Gibbs were 20 and Robbie Farah was 21. We had this high level of trust in each other and that was built through our work at training.

Everyone did something each week around their extras. It became a habit for us and I think that built an enormous amount of trust. It showed throughout the year, we felt we could get ourselves out of anything in our way.

I've spoken to Luke Lewis about this feeling and he had the same thoughts about Cronulla's 2016 title. It was a big theme for us and a type of belief within a group that everyone searches for. 

Were there any thoughts about representing Australia or was your heart always set on the Kiwis jersey?

It wasn't really something I explored. I always supported the Kiwis growing up because I'd sit down and watch Test matches with dad. That was always something I thought, I come from New Zealand so I'll support them no matter how bad things got.

They got towelled up a few times but I loved Ruben Wiki and gravitated towards Gary Freeman being a Tigers man and Kiwi-playing halfback.

Dene Halatau represented New Zealand in 15 Tests.
Dene Halatau represented New Zealand in 15 Tests. ©NRL Photos

When the opportunity came to represent the Kiwis it was a moment I was grateful for and a proud thing to do.

I made my debut in 2004, had to learn the haka and was pretty nervous. I roomed with Wairangi Koopu from the Warriors and he taught me in France.

His advice was don't worry about the mistakes, just do it with pride and passion. As long as you do that the mistakes don't matter.

Let's talk about the 2008 World Cup final – you were 18th man for the final but part of the winning squad – was there ever a more special time to be part of the nation's triumph?

A bit like 2005, there was a really good road map given by Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett who was an assistant coach at the time. Everything they spoke about that would happen in the final played out.

Just on Wayne, I remember a moment after the mid-year Anzac Test at the SCG (where Greg Inglis set up the miraculous try for Mark Gasnier) … Wayne was all laid back during the week and sat up the back of the bus and loved to have a joke.

We'd lost the game by a fair margin but did played better in the second half so 'Mooks' (Kearney) was giving us a bit of praise about that.

But then Wayne got up and said along the lines of 'yeah it was a good effort in the second half but you still lost and after the game when you were shaking hands there were a few smiles and laughs and joking around with the opposition'.

Dene Halatau with long-time Tigers teammate Robbie Farah.
Dene Halatau with long-time Tigers teammate Robbie Farah. ©NRL Photos

He said "you boys need to step out of the shadows a little bit and understand that it's going to take a bit more than that otherwise you'll forever be their little brother".

It struck a chord with everyone because later in the year the turnaround was pretty good. It was disappointing to not take the field but to be part of the campaign there was an enormous sense of pride and it was great to be able to celebrate a victory like that.

Back to the NRL and 12 months later you were on the move to Canterbury – what happened there?

I just needed a change. I'd been at the Tigers since I was a teenager and played under Tim Sheens for a while. I was comfortable and but '09 I was inconsistent and didn't think I was in a good place. The club offered me a decent deal to stay but at the last minute I got a call from my manager saying Kevin Moore and Todd Greenberg, who was Bulldogs CEO at the time, was keen to sit down with me.

I liked what they had to say. It made me nervous to leave but presented a good challenge to try something new. The Bulldogs were keen to announce it straight away but I hadn't told Sheensy direct and owed him that conversation.

Sheensy lived close to me but he never answered his phone so I tried his home phone. His wife answered and said he was really unwell so it wasn't the best timing.

We ended up sitting at a café and honestly, it was like breaking up with someone. But overall he was supportive and understanding.

You were at the Bulldogs during a mixed period with injuries seeming to plague you – that must have been tough?

It was a really patchy first year but I will say when I got there the Bulldogs had this reputation of being a family club and team that trained really hard and I felt that from the first day.

I trained hard to impress the new club and I had to go up another level.

Dene Halatau tries to evade Jamie Soward during his stint with the Bulldogs.
Dene Halatau tries to evade Jamie Soward during his stint with the Bulldogs. ©NRL Photos

It was a rocky first couple of years in terms of team results but enjoyable towards the end. Dessie came in 2012 and took us to the grand final in his first year.

I had a really good year that season but got injured with about six rounds to go and couldn't get back into the team towards the finals and the grand final.

What was the worst injury you had?

I tore my rotator cuff in 2005 before the season started so I got through the whole year with that and then got surgery a week after the grand final. Benji and I went into surgery one after the other with the same surgeon and shared the same recovery room.

When I moved to the Bulldogs I tore the MCL in my right knee six times. I had surgery twice and had two repairs done. That was the most frustrating, I almost gave up then and there and almost called it quits but like all players in the game they've got a lot of medical support from clubs and different rehab options to explore so I managed to get through it.

How did the move back to Wests Tigers end up and did you always felt like there was unfinished business there?

I was off contract in 2013 and Des was in his second year. He bought Tony Williams and Josh Jackson was coming through so I went back to a utility role.

My manager called me to say the Tigers were keen to have me back to help with the younger players and I saw it as a nice time to go back and finish my career where it all started.

Des was interested in keeping me around but was pretty honest and just said where you're at career-wise and with your age I don't want to stand in your way. I was grateful for his advice and it was all quite amicable.

Dene Halatau in his final season in 2015.
Dene Halatau in his final season in 2015. ©NRL Photos

Any regrets over not reaching 250 NRL games? (You share the great 249 figure with Andrew Johns)

It is an ugly number to finish on but still can't complain about 249, there's plenty to be thankful for. Plus, it was all my own wrong-doing. In my second last year in 2015 we played the Dragons in the final game and I got done for a shoulder charge and high tackle.

I had a clean record but still copped a week. I missed round one in 2016 and played every game after that. I'm pretty sure John Skandalis finished on the same figure too and he was secretly death riding us to not make the finals that year because he didn't want me to finish ahead of him.

Dene Halatau helps NRL players make the transition into retirement.
Dene Halatau helps NRL players make the transition into retirement. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

You work at the NRL in the area of education and wellbeing – how important has that job been for you after experiencing the highs and lows over your career?

I did a fair bit well before I retired, attending rookie camps and sharing my own experiences with young guys coming through. I sat on the board with the RLPA so I had been around player wellbeing and looking out for players' rights.

It seemed like a smooth transition into retirement. I enjoy working closely with players and clubs to make sure that players enjoy their time in the game but have a smooth transition when they move away from that environment.

I think that's a really important area the game needs to work harder on for players as a lot struggle once they're in the real world.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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