Maroons legend Mal Meninga joins Sport Australia podcast on Origin eve

As the State of Origin series opener heads to Townsville for the first time on 9 June, its most successful coach reflects on what it takes to create a champion team in Sport Australia’s latest podcast episode.

Queensland rugby league coach Mal Meninga congratulates a player wearing the number 4 jersey after a match.

Rugby League’s 13th ‘Immortal’ and current Australian Kangaroos head coach, Mal Meninga guided the Maroons to an unprecedented eight-straight series wins. He says selecting players with strong character, resilience and a sense of community is key to creating a successful team – all traits he acquired having grown up in rural Queensland.

“We want a player that has got strong character. He’s got a sense of resilience, a sense of community about him, loyalty, team – all those characteristics that you want in an individual that you know won’t let the team down.”

“He mightn’t be the best player; he mightn’t even be the best player at the club. But we know what the jersey means to him. And we prefer to pick and have those players play than someone that’s going to be high maintenance and someone’s going to take a lot of work to get ready because when you come into a rep program you haven’t got long to prepare.”

The former Canberra Raiders, Origin and Test great shares how he grew up playing various school sports and club footy, how his family helped establish a community rugby league competition, and the impact Wayne Bennett had on him to pursue a career as a professional footballer after meeting while serving as police officers in the Queensland Police Service.

He also discusses the responsibility coaches have helping players to achieve their goals in sport and become better people, and how the NRL’s Rise Development Program supports aspiring players and coaches to develop positive lifelong habits.

Meninga says it’s important to focus on the person not their skills.

“We don’t talk about talent, we don’t talk about skill, we don’t talk about how good the player is, it’s about how good a person he is. We understand that they are skilful, and they can run fast, jump high and they can tackle well and all those skillsets you need but we need to know the person. And if you get the person right and you get the characteristics of that person right, well, then you’re going to get a very good rugby league player.”

Sport Australia’s Coaching and Officiating podcast includes conversations with some of Australia’s leading sport coaches, athletes and officials and is available across popular digital services including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify, as well as on the Sport Australia website.

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Coaching and Officiating podcast series – Mal Meninga

Narrator [00:00:03] This is a Sport Australia podcast production.

Cam Tradell [00:00:08] Hello and welcome to our coaching and officiating podcast series. My name is Cam Tradell and I’m the Project Lead for Coaching and Officiating at Sport Australia. Over this series, we will look at what it takes to modernise Australia’s coaching and officiating system. Each podcast, we will be joined by a special guest who will share experiences and practical tips on their topics. Today, I’m fortunate enough to be joined by former Rugby League player and current head coach of the Australian National Rugby League team, Mal Meninga. Mal is a sport Australia Hall of Fame member and is the most successful State of Origin head coach. Welcome, Mal. Thanks for joining us.

Mal Meninga [00:00:48] Thanks, Cameron. Nice to be here.

Cam Tradell [00:00:49] Mal, I’d be interested in understanding your journey with regards to what sport used to look like for you and how it sort of morphed from, you know, your earliest memories of playing sport and where it was.

Mal Meninga [00:01:01] Growing up in in rural Queensland, you know, sport was the social fabric of any community basically in those townships. And Rugby League was central to all that. But how I grew up playing sport was through the school systems. School provided many opportunities for me to play, cricket was and mainly was rugby league in the winter and cricket in the summer basically. But you could play other sports like soccer or basketball or anything you want, swimming. Whatever you want to get your hands on, you know, I played basically. So, I grew up playing rugby league in the school systems, mum and dad were heavily involved in the community rugby league as well, the school systems as well. And eventually that that came into a lot of parents, you know, wanted their kids to play club footy. So I’m going through, I’m sort of mid 60s, sort of late 60s. And, you know, mum and dad with a number of parents would start a club footy up, you know, so you might be and through schools, it was more than the weight divisions as well. So it was you know, I was a nine year old kid, you know, playing footy, playing rugby league in a sort of six stone, seven, you know. So I’m nine, I’m playing against 11 and 12-year-olds, you know. So it wasn’t age relative, it was all around weight those in days as well. So, so mum and dad and a number of other parents started club rugby league. So, you know, under sixes and under sevens. Those days in the bush was sixes, and eights and 10s and 12s sort of go up by two lots of age groups because mainly because of numbers. So yeah, I mean I grew up playing that. So, I think, you know, from my point of view, you know, rugby league was central. I loved the sport. Mum and dad were heavily involved as coaching, Mum was, you know, the mum that did the canteen, washed the jerseys, took us to footy if we needed to go to footy or go to the games and things like that. I’ll always remember mum sitting on the sidelines, you know, barracking for Dad when he played, you know. He was captain or coach for most regional teams and he went and played because he was very transient as well, lifestyle, you know, because you follow the money, I suppose. He used to work in sawmills or cut cane or whatever the case may be, whatever community he was involved in. So, it was very fond memories, you know, I really enjoyed the environment, loved the experience. And I think because of my upbringing, it enabled me to become a more resilient person. You know, I was motivated because I had the passion for whatever I did always, you know, wanted to be, I was always competitive, always wanted to win, no matter what I did, you know. Even at school, that skill base level, even in my studies, I wanted to be, you know, a good student as well. So that was how I was brought up in Rugby League. And, you know, things obviously change today.

Cam Tradell [00:03:48] You’re talking about your father working in different jobs and so on, but still working and playing for the region. When you came through the system, you obviously had to work and also play rugby up until when was that?

Mal Meninga [00:04:01] I loved playing the game, but I never really had any aspirations about playing the game at the highest level. Again, I grew up watching or reading Enid Blyton books. Secret Seven, Famous Five, watching Police Force. I always had on police shows on: Division Four, Bellbird, all those sort of, all those sort of shows, I grew up on. Growing up in the late 60s, early 70s, I had ambitions to be a policeman. So I went to the Queensland Police Academy after I finished my junior certificate and I went, so that was 15 years of age. I left home, went down to Brisbane, the Oxley Academy down there and joined the police force, basically. So I was a cadet there and that enabled me then to do my senior certificate and also study police law, then obviously graduate to become a policeman. I was sort of recruited, I guess, my physical prowess as well. And ironically enough for a young police constable, Senior Constable I was, by the name of Wayne Bennett, was actually one of the instructors there at the academy. And he saw me play some touch on the footy field, basically. And he said to me, do you play rugby league? And I said, ‘yes, I do’. You know, I didn’t quite know how to answer him, but, yeah, I was a bit petrified at the time. And he said, ‘well, we’ll see’. You know, he said, oh jeez, you know, at the academy it was all about discipline. The academy is, you know, ‘get up at such and such a time’, and it’s all about routine and discipline and doing your study. It was a really terrific environment and obviously Wayne, mentored me through my early years, you know, 16, 17, 18, 19 years of age. I remember him saying to me one time in front of a group, you know – this is where Wayne Bennett gets his reputation around managing people – he said to me, ‘Mal, you can do anything you want to in life as long as you put your mind to it’. And he brought me up on Vince Lombardi around, you know, goal setting, the will to win all that sort of stuff. And that sort of resonated with me. I kind of liked all that and when he told me that I could do anything I want to as long as I put my mind to it, I went up to my room at the academy and I put down a number of goals. And it wasn’t it wasn’t police goals. It was rugby league goals, because then I’ve started to realise that, you know, you can play rugby league at a higher level. So, I wanted to play for my state, Queensland, in 1979 at 18 years of age. And I achieved that, ticked [it] off, and I just ticked off goals ever since basically. When I started to achieve that it had a profound influence on me in those early years, and which led to me, obviously, to the things I do today.

Cam Tradell [00:06:47] The impact that a coach can have on a player, but even shifting that to the impact that a coach can have in the community level on other aspects of people’s lives is profound. And I think there’s a remarkable, almost a responsibility on coaches with regards to building better people.

Mal Meninga [00:07:05] Yeah, well, we have a program in the NRL called the Rise Program. The Rise Program eventually, came out of the Kangaroos’ systems where we looked at our values and looked at how we wanted to be, how we want to behave, how we want to be seen, how we want to protect the game. And this Rise Program, we talk to the coaches about that very fact, around the influence and the impact they can have on their young players and in their lives and the communities’ social outcomes as well. There’s a lot of, we understand that, you know, in communities is a, you know, there’s broken families, there’s other things that can go with that person’s young life. It’s not just rugby league, it’s school, it’s what they do in their own time, it’s family backgrounds and things like that. So, if they can have a positive influence on those young people, because that’s what we talk about: we don’t talk about talent, we don’t talk about skill, we don’t talk about how good the player is, it’s about what how good a person he is. And when we talk about recruitment, we don’t, we understand that they’re skillful and they can run fast and jump high and they can tackle well and, you know, all those skill sets you need. But we need to know the person. And if you get the person right and you get the characteristics of that person right, well, then you’re going to get a very good rugby league player and you’re going to get a very good rugby league player that’s going to play for their country.

Cam Tradell [00:08:27] And that’s, that’s an incredible program. I mean, I think that’s great looking holistically at people. Hearing your stories, you came through the system fast forwarding to today. What are the major shifts that you’ve seen in athletes from back then to athletes now?

Mal Meninga [00:08:40] All the time. I mean, more knowledgeable, obviously better prepared. You know, it’s still the same sort of characteristics when I just talked about before and the character of the person as opposed to the football player. They’re a much better football player today. A better, well-rounded, very, you know, like I said, well prepared. They’re faster, fitter, you know, they jump higher, all those sort of things, maybe because of the circumstances they’re involved in, you know, the situations that they’re involved in. But the characteristics of the player hasn’t changed at all. You know, we want a player that, you know, has got strong character. He’s got a sense of resilience, a sense of community about him, loyalty, team, you know, all those all those characteristics that you want in an individual that you know won’t let the team down. And when they put that jersey on, they won’t let their club down, they won’t let their community down, they won’t let their state down. They won’t let their country down. And that’s how I look at things when I go into the representative programs. And Queensland’s got, you know, vast history around he mightn’t be the best player, he mightn’t even be the best player at the club. And sometimes he may struggle to be the best player. He mightn’t even play first grade in the club. But we know that the person he is, we know that what’s, what the jersey means to him. And we prefer to pick and have those players play than someone that’s going to be high maintenance and someone’s going to take a lot of work to get ready because, you know, when you come into a rep program, you haven’t got long to prepare him. So the person’s really important.

Cam Tradell [00:10:22] Yeah, that’s not having long to prepare, knowing that you’re also getting players from different systems, different regions with different playing styles or different philosophies. How do you go about pulling that team together? I look at the the work with the Queensland team over the years and also with the Australian team, how do you bring those philosophies together quickly so that you can perform at the levels that that you do in State of Origin or international?

Mal Meninga [00:10:48] We have a sort of what I define as a close-the-door policy. So once they walk through the door into the camp, we close the door behind him. Then we then we talk about we know we know they they’re all talented. They said they all belong there. It’s very, very important that they understand that. They understand the reasons why, the purpose, and we talk about history a lot. We talk about, you know, so when we talk about the Queensland program, we talk about what it means to be a Queensland player and what we’ll bring in ex-players and they’ll talk about their experiences. But the things that we understand from a Queensland point of view is around trust, around the effort. It’s around the attitudes, around mateship. And with the Kangaroo programs, around respect, respect for your jerseys, a respect for yourself, the opposition and what and where you are in your life. That greater sense of gratitude. We talk about inspire because we want young kids to aspire to be a Kangaroo. We talk about selflessness, and that’s our team-first attitude. Making sure that they turn up for the team, they do all the right things around their routines, their habits, the way they prepare for the game. And then we talk about excellence, which is around wanting to prove all the time. We provide what I call resilient environment for them to thrive. You know, we’re always looking at innovation. We don’t want to be boring. We want to be fun. We want it to be enjoyable. But they’ve got certain obligations, accountabilities with putting those jerseys on. So that’s really important. And we play the Queensland way, or we play the Kangaroos way, we don’t play the club way. So they’ve got to accept that as well. They’ve got to accept that collectively, you know, and it is a collaborative environment. It’s not autocratic. It’s not. Yeah, it’s very diplomatic. The way we go about our business and it’s in my role is to make sure that I lead, that resilient environment. You know, I lead it through great communication channels. You know, we talk about, talk through accountability, through recognizing everybody, making sure that their contribution is rewarded. And we always look at how we going to keep on improving the person foremost and send them back a better person and send them back in really good shape. And also, you know, hopefully they pick one thing up they can take back to their clubs, their club, clubland. They can be a better player as well. I think that’s really important. So then that in that environment, I think if they want to buy in and take ownership over, it will give us the best chance to be successful. And it’s funny through the Queensland program that we never talked about winning because that’s not, that is the expectation, but we want every player in that squad to play the best of their ability. We’ll provide everything they want to make sure that they’re the best prepared. In the Kangaroo system, we talk about winning because everyone expects us to win. So why not get the monkey off your back and talk about winning, how we’re going to do that. It basically comes back down a process again anyway. So it’s just different ways of looking and thinking about things. But it’s the same old process, the same routines, the same characteristics you want in your players and the buy-in the jersey and its history.

Cam Tradell [00:14:20] Yeah, that’s incredible the way that you put them together. Thanks very much for joining us today. Now, really appreciate your time.

Mal Meninga [00:14:27] My pleasure, Cameron. Thank you.

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