Profile: Man mountain of Oz: Mal Meninga: Dave Hadfield assesses the record-breaking career of an Australian rugby league legend

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The Independent Online
WHEN Mal Meninga becomes the first player in rugby league history to board the plane for a fourth Kangaroo tour this week, he could be excused for pausing at the top of the steps to flourish a two-fingered salute at his detractors in Australia.

No player has been written off so regularly and so comprehensively and none has so triumphantly proved the obituaries to be premature. No player has been on as many tours, but before each of them there have been vociferous critics ready to explain why he should not be making the trip.

In 1982, he was merely a local hero, a big fish from the relatively small pool of Brisbane rugby league, unproven in the hard school of the Winfield Cup. In 1986, he was out of form and out of favour for a place in the centres. In 1990, he was a novice captain incapable of carrying the burden of expectation that Australians bring with them to Europe.

And earlier this season, the evidence was incontrovertible. Meninga was finished; it was time for the Australian coach, Bob Fulton, to find another captain and another centre.

Meninga's response has echoes of the manner in which he deals with similarly misconceived attempts to stop him on the field by tackling him around the forbidding bulk of his chest and shoulders. He shrugs them off.

And the ultimate riposte to his critics is to go out at the very top. At 34, Meninga will retire from Test and Australian club rugby after this tour, although the London Broncos cling to a hope that he will have a swansong with them for the rest of this season and maybe all of next.

Whatever he decides - and his prospective coach in London, his contemporary and former team-mate Gary Grienke, remains 'very confident' of persuading him to bow out in Britain - the man they simply call Big Mal is going to have the luxury of retiring from international competition as a living legend, not a legend in decline.

That is something which gives great satisfaction to his first mentor, Wayne Bennett, now the coach at the Brisbane Broncos. 'He'll be able to walk off after his last match and feel good that he did his best right to the end,' Bennett says. 'Not everyone has been able to achieve that.'

Nor did it look at one time as though Meninga would be able to choose his own time. Starting with a collision with a goalpost in 1987, he suffered a cruel sequence of injuries that saw him break his arm four times in 18 months. That, even his firmest admirers believed, would be the end of it. But Meninga fought back, not only to win back his place in the Australian team but also to captain the 1990 Kangaroo tour.

So much for the implication, prevalent earlier in his career, that he was the classic, big, easy-going athlete, unwilling to push himself too hard. Bennett has a simple explanation for his ability to overcome such a series of setbacks. 'It's just that he enjoys the game so much, playing and training,' he says. 'He genuinely loves it and what it has provided for him.'

Bennett also has a theory that it was Meninga's season with St Helens in 1984-85 that set him on the road to becoming one of rugby league's most durable players, as well as one of its most obviously gifted.

Although he would never own up to it in quite these terms, Meninga has a deep need to command respect and affection within the game. Those emotions flowed strongly through his relationship with Saints and their supporters and his single season there was not only the most significant of any overseas import in Britain, it also had a reviving effect on his own career.

His impact at Knowsley Road is barely hinted at by his record of 28 tries in 31 games. It is perhaps summed up better by his flying visit to the ground five years later, when he was in England with the Canberra Raiders for the World Club Challenge. Saints were playing the touring New Zealanders but, to a man, their supporters turned their backs on the action to gaze at Meninga sitting in the stand eating a hamburger.

Meninga's achievements with Canberra, the Winfield Cup club he finally chose - wisely in view of the virulent form that the resentment of high-profile Queenslanders can take in Sydney - have been more tangible.

At the Sydney Football Stadium in the early hours of this morning, he was leading the Raiders into a Grand Final for the fifth time. More than anyone else, he has ensured that the expansion of the Winfield Cup into the Australian capital - controversial at the time - has been a resounding success.

He also ranks alongside the great stand-off Wally Lewis as the epitome of Queensland rugby league, figuring in State of Origin matches from their inception in 1980 right through to this season. But it is for his achievements as a Test player that Meninga will be most vividly remembered. Apart from the unique record of selection for four tours, that will be rubber-stamped later today when the party to tour Britain is announced, he holds the Australian records for the most Tests and the most points.

And yet somehow bald statistics have never done justice to Meninga. It is the manner of the achievements that counts, that combination of power and grace that sets him apart. The power is obvious enough; at over 6ft 1in and 16st, he is big enough to play in the pack - indeed, he did so, when a combination of Brett Kenny and Gene Miles forced him out of the backs on the 1986 tour, but was delighted to return to play in his customary position as right centre.

To that size and strength he adds the most feared hand-off in the game, a real mule-kick of a fend-off that plants even tacklers aiming around the right areas of his anatomy on the grass.

The silk that goes with the steel is harder to define, but Meninga is a player who has become smoother in his running action as he has got older. That can be deceptive. He frequently looks to be moving at no great pace until you notice that players 10 years younger and a couple of stones lighter are pumping away furiously and mysteriously travelling backwards.

Phil Veivers, who came from Brisbane Souths with him in 1984 and, unlike him, settled permanently in St Helens, can identify just one weak spot in Meninga's game. 'My opinion of him when I was playing with him and my opinion now is that he is probably the most complete footballer you would want to see,' he says. 'He has got size, a rugby intelligence that is second to none, a great pair of hands and speed as well. The only fault you could pick out is that, if someone steps inside him, he can be a bit like a big truck turning.'

His apparently effortless excellence in virtually all other aspects of the game can give the illusion that it has been an easy road for Meninga. That is far from being the case, however - either on or off the field. A South Sea Islander, not an aboriginal as is often stated, he had a no-frills upbringing in Queensland, where his father, Norman, came to cut sugar cane and developed into a notable countryrugby league player.

A policeman during his playing days - alongside Grienke and Veivers and under Bennett at Brisbane Souths - he now has a brother serving a life sentence for murder and is deeply involved in a campaign to give offenders a better chance after their release from imprisonment. He has also been the victim of a corrosive whispering campaign which made lurid and unsupported suggestions about his personal life.

Now married with two children, he could even find himself involved in litigation on this trip over what local newspapers in Britain still quaintly call 'a love child' supposedly fathered on his first tour here.

Meninga has always been under the particularly fierce Australian brand of critical scrutiny, whether playing or not, and would have had reason to lose his focus and more excuse to turn sour than a couple of figures in the game who have done so.

Instead, he has retained his considerable dignity. 'A gentleman,' is the way Veivers defines his bearing. 'But people underestimate his determination. To come back after what he's had shows a very high degree of mental toughness.'

The same can be said of the achievement, which can only be prevented by injury in the Grand Final this morning, of something that has eluded all other Australians. Clive Churchill, Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper and Steve Rogers are among those who made three tours. Malcolm Norman Meninga will this week step on to a different plane.