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Legend Q&A: Paul Sironen

One of Balmain's favourite sons, Paul Sironen joined forces with Steve Roach, Wayne Pearce and Ben Elias to light up Leichhardt Oval in the late 80s and early 90s. 

From the moment he burst onto the scene as Dally M Rookie of the Year in 1986 it was clear Sironen had what it took to make it in the big time.

A mainstay of NSW Origin and Kangaroos sides, Sironen was one of the toughest forwards of his era and his legacy is being carried on by sons Curtis and Bayley, who are both making their name in the NRL.

Legend Q&A: Paul Sironen

Before you played for Balmain, you spent time in Hawaii on a gridiron scholarship. How did that come about and what was it like?

In 1984 I got picked for the Australian Schoolboys merit team and Bob Lloyd, who has the Star of the Sea at Terrigal, was involved. A scout from the University of Hawaii had been in touch with him and said is there anyone you think might fit the bill for a scholarship’ and my name got thrown up.

One of the coaches from Hawaii, Larry MacDuff, came over and he came to my place. We had a chat and I did a couple of tests and within three months I was on a plane to Honolulu. It was a whirlwind but it was a great experience. Apart from all the footy stuff, it probably made me grow up a bit too.

You returned the following year and joined the Tigers. Was that always the plan or what happened?

The summer break that the US colleges have is in our winter so I came home and I ended up playing five or six games of lower grades at Balmain and because I had been in the gym and put on some size and strength I kind of stood out.

I remember playing reserve grade and getting a wrap off Bozo [Manly and Australian coach Bob Fulton]. At the time I said I would go back to Hawaii and finish the year out then I will come back and knuckle down with my rugby league career.

“Within 18 months I was on a Kangaroo tour so it was the right decision.”

That was a remarkable debut season. You played nearly every match as the Tigers fell just one win short of a place in the 1986 grand final, you won the Dally M rookie of the year and were selected on the Kangaroo tour at just 21. What do you remember about that season?

In round two we played Canberra in Canberra and Blocker [Steve Roach], not for the first or last time, was sent off or cited so he was suspended for round three and that’s how I came to get my debut against Parramatta at Leichhardt Oval. We had some good back-rowers at the club at the time, like Paul McCabe and a few other blokes, but Frank Stanton gave me a run.

We had a play-off in 1986 against Norths to make the top five but we were probably just one class player short of what was needed to make the grand final.

Obviously that one player was Ellery Hanley. He only joined the Tigers in 1988 for the last three games of the regular season but him in the team you won a fifth-place play-off and went all the way to the grand final. Is Ellery the best player you played with?

He was the difference. He was that one class player we were really missing. I was just watching a video someone has put on Facebook recently about Ellery and all the highlights of his games and tries and try assists in that stint. He was absolutely brilliant.

I have never seen a bloke change so many games and week-to-week he was the difference in so many games. He was untouchable during those eight games he had with us.

Unfortunately, Ellery only lasted 26 minutes of the grand final after being hit high by Terry Lamb. What were your thoughts on that incident? Do you think it cost you a premiership?

I didn’t think too much of it in the heat of the battle but after seeing the vision of the incident Baa [Lamb] definitely got him and he got him good. If it was a normal club game Baa would have been gone for sure but being a grand final … it’s all history now of what could or should have been.

There was more heartbreak the following year when Canberra won the 1989 grand final in extra-time. It’s regarded as one of the greatest grand finals of all time but you and Steve Roach had to watch the finish from the sideline after being replaced. How do you feel about that match now?  

It’s funny to have your best moment and your worst moment over a 14-year career in the one game but to score a try before halftime was probably one of the greatest moments of my career and then 50 minutes later in extra time I just sat there and could feel the game slipping away.

I know Block has always been a bit filthy about being replaced but to play in one of the great grand finals and to be so close … just for the bounce of the ball, or if Benny is three inches taller and kicks the field goal, we win the game.

I always thought I would get another crack but I played a semi-final the following year and that was it for me. I retired in 1998 and never played in another semi-final game again.

Paul Sironen scored one of the great grand final tries in 1989 against Canberra.
Paul Sironen scored one of the great grand final tries in 1989 against Canberra.

Despite going on the 1986 Kangaroo tour and playing in the 1988 World Cup final against New Zealand, you didn’t play State of Origin until 1989. Was there a reason for that?

I don’t know if they had different selectors or what it was, but after the Kangaroo tour in 1986 I probably didn’t knuckle down. It was a long season after coming from reserve grade to play first grade and going on a Kangaroo tour so I was pretty well busted starting the 1987 season.

I had osteitis pubis but it wasn’t diagnosed at the time so I didn’t know what it was but for half the season I was in agony. I could hardly walk after games and I thought what the hell is going on here.

I struggled at the back end of the year and got dropped but I had a full break over that summer and came back in 1988 feeling much better.

I played in the World Cup final in 1988 but I think the Blues squad was pretty well entrenched. They had Crusher [Noel Cleal] and Steve Folkes, so it was pretty hard to crack it for a spot but it was a different level of footy and State of Origin was certainly the pinnacle back then.

Once you did break into the Blues team you became part of NSW’s most successful Origin era, winning four series in five years between 1990 and 1994. You must have some great memories of that period?

Jack Gibson was the coach in 1990 and Jack didn’t say much. I played off the bench in the three Origin games and it was great to win the series that year and then that golden period under Gus [Phil Gould from 1992 to 1994 was just brilliant span of footy for the Blues.

We used probably the same 18-to-20 blokes by and large during that period and we are all still great mates today. That was one of the nice things that come out of playing rep footy.

You were also part of a dominant era for Australia at Test level and went on three Kangaroo tours, including what was effectively the last real one with midweek matches against English clubs in 1994. They were often feisty clashes and you were the victim of a nasty elbow from Barrie McDermott in a game against Wigan and got sent off against St Helens. Tell us about that rivalry?

I got cleaned up in one of the first games of the tour and Barrie McDermott dined out on that for a while. What was most disappointing about the McDermott incident, and Block rang me and he said if I was playing there was no way in the world he would have stood back after the cheap shot he got me with.

In 1994 Paul Sironen became only the fourth forward in history to make a third Kangaroo tour.
In 1994 Paul Sironen became only the fourth forward in history to make a third Kangaroo tour.

He said, ‘I can’t believe no one bunged on a stink’ but the Australian forwards were all nice blokes so they stood around and didn’t do much when it should have been an all-in. I was fortunate not to get a broken jaw or lose a few teeth so it could have been a lot nastier than it was.

I don’t know if it was a conscious thing that they were into me but I had come off a bit of a disruptive season in 1994 at club level. The Tigers were struggling and I was struggling a bit with injuries but to Bozo’s credit he picked me to go so I was probably a little bit underdone.

I think frustration may have got the better of me to be honest with that particular incident in which I was sent off.

Your career ended in France where you spent a season with Villeneuve. Was that planned?

I finished with Balmain in 1998 and I had some offers to go to England but the English season ran parallel to the Australian season and I wanted to keep playing so I decided to go to France and it also gave me an opportunity to travel with the family.

Curtis was finishing kindergarten so Leanne stayed until he finished kindy and Bayley was only about two at that stage. There were a few other Australians over there and some Kiwis and it was the most wonderful seven or eight months of my life.

Of all the competitions we played in, our side, Villeneuve, won three different titles that year. I finally won a grand final, there was a Challenge Cup and there was an English Challenge too so it was a great way to finish.

I came back to Australia in 1999 and Junior [Wayne Pearce] asked if I wanted to play the last eight games of Balmain before they became Wests Tigers. I toyed with the idea but I said no. The way I finished in 1998 was enough for me.

Bayley and Curtis Sironen after a clash between Souths and Manly in 2019.
Bayley and Curtis Sironen after a clash between Souths and Manly in 2019. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

Being the most capped Balmain player in the club’s history with 247 appearances, did you support the joint venture with Western Suburbs in 2000 and how do you feel about it now?

I was over in France when things were coming to a head and the big story was that Parramatta wanted to merge with Balmain but I think primarily they just wanted to get rid of the Eel and take the Tiger so I was a lot more comfortable merging with the Magpies.

They are a foundation club, we shared common borders and there were lots of other things. I was actually on the board for about six years, including 2005 when they won the premiership.

I am still involved. I look after the pathways for Balmain but I’m employed by Wests Tigers and we still punch above our weight, we are still producing NRL players. The club embraces both foundation clubs now and I think a lot of blokes have mellowed a bit.

With Curtis now at Manly and Bayley in the South Sydney team, are you disappointed they aren’t playing for Wests Tigers or just proud of what they have achieved.

I am just happy for them, particularly Curtis after the injuries he has had. He had eight or nine major surgeries before he was 25 so his body really wasn’t ready for NRL but he is making a good fist of it now and he is probably realising the potential that a lot of people thought he had eight or nine years ago.

Bayley’s opportunity has been a bit slower. Two years ago he was a part-timer, working at a place called Giant Steps and not sure where he was going with footy but he got an opportunity and is enjoying it.

He has had a few starting games now so we are really happy for him, he has worked really hard to get to where he is. Hopefully they can both stay healthy and fit, and continue to grow.