Todd Carney. The name alone brings vivid memories of his on-field talent and not so great memories of his off-field incidents. Love him or hate him, there can be no denying he spent his fair share of time in the spotlight for both the right and wrong reasons.
While some might consider it to be one of the great wasted careers in Australian sport’s recent past, Carney still had an outstanding list of achievements to rattle off by the time it was all said and done.
He finished up with a grand final, a Dally M Medal, matches for both New South Wales and Australia and a grand total of 222 matches at the top level, with 166 of those in the NRL before he finished his professional career in England.
From the dizzying heights of making an NRL debut at the age of 17 for his hometown club, to captaining the Junior Kangaroos in 2006 and his stunning 2010 season at the Sydney Roosters, to the crushing lows of being released by the Raiders in 2008 for off-field behaviour and watching his career slip away before him after the infamous “bubbler” incident in 2014, it’s a career that’s had it all and divided opinions for virtually as long as it ran.
Even now, he is still splitting opinions with a new controversial Sportsbet advertisement where he claims their new app is a “piece of piss” and his tell-all book.
But Carney was just like any other regular kid in the rugby league system, dreaming of one day playing at the top grade with the best players in the game for his Green Machine, and he made that achievement at an age earlier than most before him.
“It was always the dream. I guess as a young boy I always wanted to play rugby league. When I got the opportunity to play one game of NRL, I would have just been happy to do that,” Carney said.
By the time 2006 rolled around, Carney had started to establish himself in the Raiders top list of players, and it was a year which could be considered his breakout into the top grade.
At the end of the year, Carney also had the opportunity to captain the Junior Kangaroos in what was a whirlwind 12 months for the then 19-year-old young gun.
“2006 was probably my solid year where I stayed in the squad and probably performed at the level I knew I could, which was up to the NRL.
“It was good to get the accolades from the hard work that you put in, and you set yourself goals as a young kid to get those achievements. It (playing for the Junior Kangaroos) really gave me the motivation to play Origin and for Australia in the future.”
“When I got to Origin, words can’t describe playing it. Just to experience that arena. Playing Australia is the pinnacle, but Origin was the most physical game experience, and it was a dream come true.”
But, with a spot in the NRL and growing popularity as a player on the park came increased spotlight, money and media attention, and in early 2007, things began unravelling for Carney off the field as he was suspended from driving for five years.
“The early indiscretions come from trying to get used to the spotlight. Being young was also a part of it, but there’s no excuse for it,” Carney told me.
By the end of 2008, things had become untenable for the Carney camp at the Raiders and he was unceremoniously dumped from the club and de-registered from the NRL, barred from being picked up by another club until 2010.
It was a big blow for Carney, as he lost the way of life that came with it.
He made the move to Atherton, pulling beers in the pub and playing in the far north Queensland competition as he tried to get his professional career back on track.
“Being sacked by the Raiders was a massive wake-up call for me,” said Carney.
“Obviously moving to Atherton, playing in the Cairns competition made me realise what I’d lost. Fulltime rugby league and the income that comes with it, but it made me realise what I wanted.
“I worked hard that year (2009) and it allowed me to get back into the NRL in 2010.”
Carney told me during our chat that 2009 opened his eyes and he learnt a lot playing in the north, and by the time he moved back to the Roosters in 2010 for another shot at the big time, he was ready to put the past behind him.
2010 was undoubtedly the best year of Carney’s career. Moved to fullback for the first half of the season, he was a major part of the reason why the Roosters were able to make it all the way to the grand final after picking up the wooden spoon in 2009.
Carney finished the year as the best player in the game, and made his debut in the green and gold at the end of the year.
The now 33-year-old looks back on the year and his time under Brian Smith fondly, saying staying off the drink for 2010 was what helped his career blossom to the potential it could have had.
“The support of Brian Smith helped me tremendously. At the club, a lot of us didn’t drink that year under the guidance of Smith,” said Carney, reflecting on the year.
“Playing fullback and putting my best foot forward really played a part.
“Grand final day is something you work so hard for with a bunch of blokes. It’s the ultimate goal and we fell short, but the memory of it will always sit with me.
“The Dally M to top it off was great, but any one of my teammates could have received that award that year.”
Unfortunately, the then Roosters star couldn’t help himself. He fell back into old habits and was released by the Roosters on mutual grounds at the end of 2011, and was forced to sit some games out during the second half of the season.
A 23-year-old at the time, the travel for the Four Nations and extended pre-season didn’t sit well with the new Australian representative off the field, who got back on the drink.
“After the 2010 season, I slipped back into bad habits being away with the Four Nations. I only played one game so had a lot of time and started drinking again, went to America and then, I wouldn’t call it a reckless mode, but I thought I could handle what I was doing and didn’t,” said Carney.
Carney would then sign with the Sharks and, while his behaviour was fine for the first two years, playing well before and after an ACL tear in 2013, it was the infamous bubbler incident that ended his days in the NRL.
While the much-maligned star can see the impact it caused, he says he didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
“I still don’t think it’s that big of a deal, which is why I’m happy to talk about it,” said Carney.
“Obviously I’m not proud of it, but the picture says I did what I did. I didn’t think it’d cause as much drama as it did, but it effectively ended my legacy in Australia playing rugby league.”
The bubbler, which Carney says he has “moved on from,” which is why he is happy to poke fun at it and open up on what really happened, was the catalyst for the end of his NRL career, and he would his playing days in England.
Being out of the Sydney media bubble helped Carney’s behaviour and the Super League was, for the most part, not at the same level as the NRL. But the club-hopping half was happy with his time in England and France nonetheless as he tried to clean up his act.
“It wasn’t as elite, the footy. Unless you were playing against the top five teams, the ability wasn’t as high across the boards. Teams also really struggled travelling to France from England,” he said.
“But it was easier to behave and keep a low profile. In France, no one cared anyway about rugby league players. Supporters knew who you were, but other than that, you were average Joe.”
There was one final chance of playing in the NRL again when he came back to the Northern Pride in the Queensland Cup, but that was dashed and Carney knew his time was up.
“At first when I came back to Australia, I thought there was no chance of getting back into the NRL. I was just going back to play and I had a job at the club, but with my form I got contacted by the Cowboys there was a genuine opportunity there later that year,” said the then 31-year-old.
“I chose to return back to Sydney though.”
While Carney has managed to move on from the incidents which plagued his career, he admits there are things he isn’t proud of, and that he knows just what his potential might have been.
“I look back at my time in Canberra. I could have had a really good career down there without the off-field stuff. I probably would have played 300 games by now if circumstances were different. Could have, would have,” said Carney.
“Obviously I’m proud of what I’ve done in my career and what I’ve got, but it would have been a whole lot better and of course I definitely regret some poor choices I made, but I guess it makes you who you are.”
And looking from the outside, it’s hard to disagree with him on his claims, given what he showed on the field during his much-maligned and often frustrating, but immensely talented career.
Hard Truth by Todd Carney with Tony Adams is available now.