Rugby league is just a sport, some would say. Its detractors would ridicule the concept of grown adults running around chasing an oval-shaped ball along with the millions of fans whose weekend often rides on the direction that ball bounces in, ignoring the rational thought that we really have no say in the result as we watch on from the stands or our couches.
It is so much more than just a sport though. It has the power to bring people together who often have more differences than attributes in common. It has the power to bring country kids from small, humble beginnings onto the big stage, with people from all walks of life watching on in admiration. This is the experience of 1988 Clive Churchill Medal winner Paul Dunn.
Born in the small NSW country town of Molong, Dunn spent his formative years in Bathurst and Orange where he started playing rugby League at a young age in primary school.
“I went to school in Orange, the same school Darren Britt went to. I was one of the biggest kids in year one and started playing football there,” Dunn told Everything Rugby League.
“Half the time you’d walk around with a football because that’s just what you did. On holidays you’d have a football with you the whole time. We used to play football on the road out the front, touch football obviously, no tackling on the road, not that tough!”
Whilst being blessed with a physique suitable for rugby league that helped as a young kid, Dunn quickly realised that talent can only get you so far before hard work needs to take over. Moving to Sydney in 1983 to join the Eastern Suburbs Roosters, Dunn had to put in the hard yards to prove to himself and the club that he was good enough to play first grade.
“When I first got to Sydney, we used to train Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturday mornings. I’d train Wednesdays and Fridays by myself. Invariably what I found was that most the guys that were getting into rep teams were the ones putting in the extra work.”
When speaking about where the belief came from that he could end up making in the big time he’s not entirely sure. Having very supportive parents did play a part though.
“My mum reckons when I was 16-years-old, I told her I was going to play for Australia, but I don’t remember saying it. She always said you can be whatever you want to be, you’ve just got to put your mind to it.”
“My Dad used to drive us all over NSW to play football as you did when you lived in the country. When I moved to Sydney, he’d drive from Bathurst to Sydney six or seven times a year to watch me play until they (his parents) moved down in 1990. I had a lot of support from my mum and dad.”
It wasn’t long before Dunn was picked to make his first grade debut for the Roosters in 1984. The concept of playing against stars you’ve only really seen on television is one shared by most players early on in their career and Dunn was no different.
“I got to tackle Noel Cleal and Chris Close. They all went out and got on the drink after the game, but I had to go home because I had to play third grade the next day”.
Dunn’s debut season was somewhat anomalous for the game, with the season finishing earlier than normal so the then rights holder Channel 10 could cover the 1984 Olympic Games. “We had to play five rounds in two weeks”, a workload more similar to rugby league in England than Australia. Dunn would go onto play a total of 36 games for Eastern Suburbs.
In what would prove to be a very successful move, Dunn moved from Eastern Suburbs to the Canterbury Bulldogs in time for the 1986 season.
“I got a manager around this time and we went through to 12 or so clubs that were in the competition at the time. I spoke with the Bulldogs who convinced me that I’d have more of a chance of playing for Australia if I signed with them, which was obviously the dream of everyone who played the game. The Bulldogs were the current premiers. I was lucky enough to be coached by the likes of Warren Ryan, Phil Gould and Chris Anderson. I wanted to be part of a good team and hopefully make the Australian squad” Dunn explained.
The Bulldogs would go on to make the grand final again this season, losing by the slimmest of margins to Parramatta, 4-2. “I hated Parramatta for years until I went there”, said Dunn in a jovial manner.
This was also the same year when Dunn was chosen in the team to fly to Papua New Guinea to represent Australia in what in the Prime Ministers XIII.
“You get off the plane at Port Moresby airport and there are thousands of people there because rugby league is their national sport, and they love it. It’s really hot and the ground is hard. They loved Mal (Meninga) in particular. It was 10 years after they gained their independence from Australia, so the game was part of PNG’s Independence Day celebrations.”
He would then fly back to Sydney and leave for England the next day after being selected for the for the 1986 Kangaroos tour of England and France.
“I’d just turned 23 and I was like a kid in a candy store, it was my dream. You’d play on a Wednesday and then we’d go out drinking until the following Tuesday. We had a great time.”
“When we played St Helens at Knowsley Road, I was a reserve. On the way to the game, I had a couple of banana rolls because I thought I wasn’t going to get on. Then 10 minutes into the game, Blocker (Steve Roach) dislocates his elbow and I’m on with banana rolls rumbling around in my stomach.
“The Test match was the next week and I got picked in the side and stayed in the test match for the rest of the tour. The third Test match we played in Wigan and it was a really tough game. We won 25-14 and I got the man of the match.”
The year 1988 proved to be the highlight of Dunn’s superlative playing career in rugby league, winning the premiership and the Clive Churchill Medal, a feat very few players manage to achieve. After tasting narrow defeat in 1986, Dunn had now reached the highest of highs.
“1988 was a great year. All good young blokes. Went to Hawaii after we won the comp and then I came back and played for Australia in the Rugby League World Cup final against New Zealand which we won. I also played for NSW in State of Origin at Lang Park that year. It was the game where they were all throwing cans on the field. Overall, it was just a really good year.
As is synonymous with rugby league, turmoil at a club level saw Dunn and a handful of other players leave Canterbury to sign with other clubs. This moved proved to be another successful one for Dunn as he would go on to join Penrith and play a key part in their 1991 maiden premiership.
“The Penrith experience was really interesting as they’d lost the Grand Final the year before. I was a little bit of an outsider as they had all grown up together but I was happy to be a part of the team. Beating Canberra in the 91’ Grand Final was great. We then went over to England and played Wigan in the World Club Challenge at Anfield. I’m a Liverpool supporter so getting to play there was great.”
This short but successful stint with Penrith was proceeded by a three season stint at Parramatta before a return to Eastern Suburbs, who had by then changed their name to Sydney City.
All in all, Dunn would play a total of 254 first grade games in the toughest positions on the field; prop and second row. Playing against some of the most renowned forwards ever to play the game, Dunn named Ian Roberts as one of the fiercest forwards to come up against.
“I knocked Ian Roberts out in a Monday Night game once. He came on in the second half, runs the ball up, I’ve shoulder charged him and he dropped the ball. I must have clipped him and knocked him out. For the rest of my career, about 10 years, I reckon he was trying to get me back. He was a tough competitor and very fit. Ian is a really good guy though, I actually got along with him really well,”
“I used to enjoy playing against Phil Daley. For a couple of years, he used to tackle you and he’d growl. We were having a few beers on the Kangaroo Tour and asked him why he did that for, and he told me he was speaking to a sports psychologist and it made him feel more aggressive.” Dunn laughs
Dunn’s Kangaroos career saw him rewarded with the Australian Sports Medal for his contribution to Australia’s standing in international rugby league.
Post playing career, Dunn ventured into what some might consider an even fiercer industry than being a rugby league player; sports administration. Named Chief Executive of the South Sydney Rabbitohs shortly before they were very publically reinstated into the NRL, Dunn contributed his expertise to the club before departing at the end of the 2002 season. Dunn would also go on serve on the board of the Canterbury Bulldogs, contributing to the club he won his first premiership at.
These days, Dunn has forged a successful career as a Business Growth Strategist, helping businesses throughout Australia grow and solve their biggest challenges, a field never more needed than now.
THOUGHTS ON THE MODERN DAY GAME
“The players are obviously a lot more skillful and much fitter. I like that there are fewer interchanges now as it’s brought back the endurance factor. I’m really disappointed that they don’t have proper contested scrums anymore as they were always a good part of the game. I hate the six-again rule and think it’s ruining the game.
“I love watching Melbourne, the way they play. I like that they still play football. It’s not a flash in the pan either, they’ve been doing it for so long. I also like seeing Penrith play.”
“Wally Lewis stood out. He could defend, he could kick, he could pass and run, could do everything. Sterlo (Peter Sterling) was really good, Gene Miles was amazing. Brett Kenny was just a freak of a player. I played with Alfie (Allan Langer) in the 1988 Word Cup Final. Many great players.”
ADVICE TO ASPIRING PLAYERS
“You have to work hard, and you have to love it. When I first came to Sydney I was told if you want to be any good, you must love training and that stuck with me. If you’re going to play, you have to be the fittest you can be. I would recommend to any player to go and watch The Last Dance and look at the application and dedication Michael Jordan put into his game. Talk to Andrew Johns, Johnathan Thurston, Nathan Cleary and understand there’s a reason they’re that good. It’s good to have natural ability, but it will only take you so far.”
“The 1988 Grand Final and getting the Clive Churchill Medal”