Trent Waterhouse was part of Penrith’s fairytale 2003 premiership in just his second NRL season and went on to represent his state and country.
In 2009 the Panthers enforcer etched his name in State of Origin folklore when he became the first Blues player to be sent off after a brawl at Suncorp Stadium.
In this Rugby League Week Legend Q&A first published in 2016, Waterhouse recalls how close he came to giving the game away as a youngster, the Panthers’ remarkable 2003 charge and the piece of Origin history he’d happily live without.
Legend Q&A: Trent Waterhouse
You were almost lost to footy after playing with Penrith under 20s, weren’t you?
I used to be a centre, believe it or not – a pretty slow one, mind you – and yeah, I played the first year of 20s and Roycey Simmons spoke to me and said he wanted me to play back row the next year.
So I put on a fair bit of weight and when I came back my legs weren’t handling it, I was getting stress fractures and shin splints. So I ended up playing out the season with Emu Plains in A-grade and yeah, I’d pretty much given up on the NRL dream at that point.
So how did you end up making your debut in 2002?
I went to an open trial with Manly at Brookie Oval – and no good. And I was so close to giving up but my brother got into me and said, ‘What you got to lose? Give Penrith a ring, see if you can get a trial’, and by that time Roycey had moved on and John Lang had come in. So I rang [recruitment manager] Jim Jones and he asked Langy and they said I could try out for the pre-season.
So there were about four of us that he took on to trial through the summer. I never would’ve thought I’d be making my debut against Melbourne in Melbourne [in round 23] that year.
We got smashed but it was still a great memory. My family was there, and it was just a great week.
What do you recall most about that dream season of 2003?
I was still working as a storeman in a factory till halfway through that year. I played the first half and then Richo [Panthers CEO Shane Richardson] said, ‘Do you want to go full-time?’
And mate, I was just stoked with that. And then to go on the way we did, and win it, and then go on a Kangaroo tour at the end of the year . . . it’s still hard to believe it unfolded the way it did.
When did you start to think something special was brewing?
The third game in 2003 was a turning point for us. We’d lost our first two games, including getting pumped by Melbourne, and we were down at half-time against the Roosters, and they were the guns, and big Joel Clinton wears his heart on his sleeve and he got a bit emotional and we came back and won.
We went on to win eight of the next nine and set up the season. Leading in to the grand final, it was all new to us and there was no fear. I guess that’s what helped us – everyone was so relaxed because no one gave us a chance.
I remember watching the coverage later and they showed vision from our sheds before the match and we were all laughing and smiling, but in the Roosters’ sheds it was the opposite.
Looking back at the 2003 NRL grand final
You only ever played for Penrith in the NRL. Why was that?
I always had special memories out there. I grew up playing grand finals at Penrith Park. I remember in under-7s playing at Penrith Park at half-time of a first grade game between the Panthers and Eels – I think it was when they were still building the eastern grandstand. I’ll never forget the atmosphere of the massive crowd for the local derby.
So to be out there playing for the team that I grew up watching on the hill – for a boy from Penrith it’s a dream come true. So I never wanted to come off contract and test the water.
I always signed before my time was up. I never wanted to go anywhere else.
You played with and against Brad Fittler, a fellow Cambridge Park junior.
I played against him a number of times, including that 2003 grand final and I was lucky enough to play with him for NSW. It was unreal, very surreal, he’s a legend of the game and a legend of Penrith and we were from the same junior club.
I remember watching the grand finals in ’90 and ’91, so it was hard to believe I was actually on the same field as him. After games he was always good, just talking about ‘Camo’ boys and stuff like that. He’s a champion human and he was a champion player.
How did you find out about your selection for Australia?
It came as a shock. We were all on the bus going to Mad Monday and I think five of us got picked. They called our names over the radio and I thought I was hearing things.
The bus just went crazy. It was just the icing on the cake to an incredible year. We went into camp a week later, so we’d been celebrating the grand final all week.
We got into camp on the Sunday and had to back up for a bonding session that night. Then we rolled into Allianz Stadium on the Monday morning and Billy Johnstone gave us a flogging. I’ve never felt so bad at training!
In 2009 you became the first Blue to be sent off in a State of Origin. What happened in that infamous brawl?
I was on the other side and all I’d seen was the back of Steve Price throwing punches, so I just ran in to grab him and pull him away but as I got there Whitey [Brett White] got him on the chin and I ended up falling on him, which probably didn’t look that good.
I was just in there to get him away, you know, and then all hell broke loose. I got sent off and showered in beer on my way up the tunnel.
We went out for beers afterwards at the Normanby in Brisbane and I had my hat down, didn’t want to draw attention to myself [laughs].
Funnily enough, just the other day one of my mates sent me a picture message, and my send-off was a trivia question in the crossword section of the newspaper . . . I guess I’ve made it now [laughs].
Your move to Warrington in England paid off when you won the Challenge Cup in your first year. Is the Cup final all it’s cracked up to be?
The Challenge Cup was an amazing experience. It’s something we don’t really have in Australia and it’s held in very high esteem over there. Some of the loyal fans over there love the Cup more than they love the Super League grand final.
Wembley is such an iconic place. I remember getting up early and watching the Kangaroos play at Wembley so to play there in front of a full house and win the Challenge Cup is something I’ll always cherish.
To read more about State of Origin’s history makers and record breakers, purchase your copy of ’40 Years of State of Origin’ by former Rugby League Week editor and NRL.com senior journalist Martin Lenehan.