September 17, 2010
.Others might have written off his side but Todd Payten has been around long enough to know how to ignore negativity, writes Glenn Jackson.
After the awful sound of a season crumbling came the silence - broken by the slam of a door. Wests Tigers had just squandered the chance to waltz into a preliminary final, losing a 100-minute effort against the Roosters last Saturday night, and the players had baulked at the thought of jumping into the nearby pool for a recovery swim because it meant walking past the supporters.
It was then that Todd Payten, an underrated and, it would seem, understated forward, asked all the excess staff and plain-clothed players to leave the dressing room at Sydney Football Stadium. The door shut.
Behind that closed door, Payten oozed the qualities of a captain and a coach. He told the players not to whinge or sook, to start focusing on their next game. He told them to walk out that same door with their heads held high.
‘‘They listened to him, as well,’’ Tigers coach Tim Sheens said this week. ‘‘They’d have done it [walked to the pool] anyway, but they did it with a lot more enthusiasm when Toddy said, ‘Come on, let’s go - and we stick together.’ The big thing was to stick close and make sure that we’re tight.’’
Fourteen years ago, Sheens watched as a different Payten, a ‘‘young, snotty-nosed rookie’’, was called out of Erindale College to make his first-grade debut for Canberra, the Tigers’ opponents in tonight’s do-or-die match.
Many would be unaware that it was Sheens who gave Payten his top-grade start. Many would also be unaware that it came in 1996, making Payten the second longest-serving player still in the premiership - behind an opponent tonight, Canberra’s Scott Logan, who debuted eight rounds before he did.
Which means the 31-year-old Payten is younger than Penrith’s Petero Civoniceva (34) and the Dragons’ Luke Priddis (33) but has been playing in first grade longer.
Sheens, who hoards rugby league magazines and memorabilia like a widow clings to a wedding album, last year reminded Payten of his debut - against Western Suburbs at Campbelltown - when, during a drive to Canberra before the team faced the Raiders, he slipped the disc of Payten’s debut on to the team coach’s television. It handed his teammates some ammunition but it also allowed Payten some reflection.
‘‘I was still at school, and I remember sitting in the hotel before the game,’’ Payten says. ‘‘My memory is of thinking, ‘What the f–- am I doing here?’ Brad Clyde, Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley, they were all the guys I’d looked up to as a kid.’’
His next memory - although a slightly hazy one - was of being on his knees in Shooters on the Gold Coast a few weeks later with those same calibre of players shoving a bottle of tequila down his throat. Rugby league, as we know, was different back then. ‘‘I might have been 18 at the time,’’ he says with a smirk. (He wasn’t.)
It was, he says, a ball - maybe too much, because ultimately, Payten lost his way in Canberra. He was not training enough, and was eating and drinking far too much. He is ‘‘embarrassed’’ by it now. ‘‘The easiest way to put it is that football was a living for me, whereas now I’m living for football,’’ he says. ‘‘It was part of growing up, and it probably made me the player I am at the moment.’’
The player he is at the moment is, as Tigers assistant coach Royce Simmons declares, the best all-round forward in the competition.
‘‘I don’t think there’s any better,’’ Simmons says. ‘‘Some blokes like to carry the ball, some blokes like their defence, some blokes like the pre-offload. He likes all of them.’’
Payten is now a pillar of training-ground attitude, and Sheens says the ‘‘credit’s due to the man’’.
‘‘You can flog blokes, but if they don’t want to do it, and they don’t punish themselves to do it and they don’t discipline themselves at home with what they eat and drink, it’s a waste of time,’’ Sheens says. '‘It’s a matter of him changing an attitude from when he was a young guy, which was, plenty of speed, big man, getting easy money to come on and play a few minutes off the back of the Raiders bench, to being a starting prop in a NRL side, that led this squad to a premiership in ‘05. That’s a big turnaround.’’
So if he is so good, why is he yet to play rep football? It’s a question that, in fact, has flummoxed Sheens and Simmons, as well as others. But not so much Payten, who believes his earlier carefree days might have affected his rep hopes; coaches are like elephants when it comes to having long memories.
‘‘Rep footy’s always been a goal, but I’m not your typical front-rower,’’ Payten says. ‘‘Origin’s been leaning towards the athlete. As well, the Origin coaches have always known me in the past - ‘Bellyache’ [Craig Bellamy] was in Canberra, and he knew me when I wasn’t real dedicated. I think that might have a little part to play in that. Same with Ricky [Stuart, who later coached him at the Roosters] really. I’m sure their lasting impression of me is not a good one.’’
Tigers captain Robbie Farah, though, only knows one Todd Payten. ‘‘There’s not a bloke in the comp I’d like to see play rep footy more,’’ Farah says. ‘‘I think he’s one of the most underrated players in the comp. I know how important he is to us. I think he’s just as important to our side as myself and Benji [Marshall] are.’’
That’s quite ironic, because there is a perception that Payten is a frustrated playmaker; he has been described as a halfback in a prop’s body. It is a perception that annoys Sheens.
‘‘The connotation is that he doesn’t want to do the hard stuff,’’ Sheens says. ‘‘The better way of putting it is a front-rower with a halfback’s brain, and with a halfback’s skills.’’
The body is of the more aged variety. But it appears not ready to weary him just yet. If Payten could write his own script, he would play out another two seasons - cracking 300 games - winning a second premiership between now and then. Whether the premiership happens this year depends largely on the Tigers’ ability to back up after last weekend’s marathon. But anyone who believes the side is stuck in an emotional let-down would be wise to avoid repeating the claim around this Tiger from Temora.
‘‘That’s bullshit,’’ Payten responds. ‘‘I watched the game again on Sunday, and it just reaffirms to me that we’ve got the side to win the whole thing. I’ve never played in a game where we were more dominant and didn’t come away with the win. No one gives us a hope. But if we play like that again over the next few weeks, we’ll give it a shake.’’
Matches like that can destroy a season - but they can also define a team.
‘‘That’s what bonds them,’’ Sheens says. ‘‘They go through those crucial, crunching, near-death experiences at training and then in games like that, where you think your lungs are going to fall out and your legs are going to fall off and you’re going to die. Somehow you get through it.’’
And when the doors shut on that one, you move on to the next.
He really does have a point there about the rep coaches… think about the country & nsw coaches for the last 3-5 years when Todd has been playing at his best in my opinion… Nearly all of them are former Canberra teamates or coaches & by his own admission he was just having too much of a good time & not living for the footy that he is now…
I’ve thought Todd should’ve been close to at least country selection…