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Opinion

'Even on your death bed you tried to make me feel good': How Peter Mulholland inspired hundreds of footy careers

Peter Mulholland. (Photo courtesy Canberra Raiders)
Expert
16th December, 2021
11

“I said to them that if they were keeping a particular player, it was either him or me. They said ‘we invested in him so it will be you’.”

So recalled Peter Mulholland, the greatest schoolboy coach in rugby league history, last year. He died Thursday after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 68.

Twenty-five years ago, almost to the day, Peter lost his only Premiership first grade coaching job, at the Perth Reds. That first paragraph? That’s how it happened.

Sometimes our perceived failures are a bigger testament to our qualities than what the peripheral observer might regard as our successes. Right now, it doesn’t matter who the player was. What matters is that when Pete got his chance, events first conspired against him as his club went quickly broke – and then he chose to take a stand on a matter of principle.

If you’re trying to figure out what kind of man Peter was: that kind. While he knew the game; he was too pure to play ‘the game’. And he outlived Perth Reds by a generation.

“You’ve got players in your team that are intrinsically motivated and you’ve got those that are extrinsically motivated,” he told me the last time I interviewed him, when the focus was on 1996 and 1997.

“The intrinsically motivated players are the ones who want to be the best they can possibly be. Their performances never waver. They’re the Brad Mackays and the (Mark) Geyers and the Craig Inneses.

“You’ve got a whole group of players then that are extrinsically motivated. They’re the blokes that know you need them and are motivated by money.

“What happened with Super League is they got paid all their money up front. It became comfortable, it became a distraction. You’ve got fancy cars driving around. I remember: I’ve never seen so many Jeep Cherokees in one place.

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“That takes away a lot of the initiative. That takes away a lot of the motivation of these players. These guys are only looking at bank accounts, not (competition) tables.”

Mulholland was employed by Super League. He was offered an assistant coach’s job in Australia, which any careerist would have devoured. Instead, halfway through the split season of 1997, ’Skull’ opted to be parachuted in to Paris Saint-Germain after they, too, had sacked their coach.

He had the satisfaction of beating the Reds in the World Club Challenge, on June 21. Just 2500 people were there at Charlety Stadium to see a 24-0 shutout.

Almost anyone else would have felt rich vindication that day – but Pete was instead girding his loins to fight another injustice. “It was bittersweet,” he said. “You live with these players…” The PSG squad, mostly Aussies and Kiwis, were going in and out of France on tourist visas and being paid out of the UK.

“I paid $26,000 to take all my furniture over and it sat on a dock at La Havre and wasn’t unpacked,” he recalled. “They wouldn’t give us any assistance to find accommodation. We were living in a hotel.

“Every time we went through Manchester or London or back through Charles de Gaulle, one or two players would be pulled up by immigration.

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“(In Paris) I had to try to explain to them in my pidgin French what was going on. We bluffed our way through it on each occasion.

“When 23 players and their families – 40-odd people – are living in a hotel on the outskirts of Paris, there’s something that says…. We had four cars between us.

“I had a blue with them and Andy Goodway took over because I wasn’t prepared to continue this charade.

“Everything we were promised, nothing was being delivered. I rang (Super League Europe boss) Maurice Lindsay. I said ‘look, I can’t do this’. It wasn’t improving. I spoke to old (English official) Harry Jepson at the time, I said ‘I’m gone, I want my pay’. Maurice Lindsay refused then. I stayed in the hotel, not on strike but until there was a settlement.

“They still had about four weeks of competition to go then. I had to take a stance somewhere. I had a family and I had players there that were just living in ridiculous circumstances.”

And Peter Mulholland outlived Paris Saint-Germain rugby league club by a generation.

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Mulholland never again got the chance to coach a top grade team. But he was incredulous when I asked if he ever felt like walking away from the sport.

“It gave me every opportunity to travel! It gave my son an education in Paris. It was hard on my wife, if anything. She’s in a hotel room, living with players’ wives. But there’s a group of players that still has reunions. I went down to Limoux and did some consultancy work.”

And in 2003 Mulholland played a key role in Penrith’s second premiership, away from the politicking and posturing, dealing with people again. That was his forte. By not becoming an ego in a baseball cap for the next decade or two, ‘Skull’ helped dozes of others realise their potential.

Most of them were heartbroken yesterday.

As a journalist, I started interviewing Peter quite early in his coaching career, although not as early as Matthew Gunn. A cub reporter at Rugby League Week, Matt wrote on Facebook yesterday: “I started out with schoolboys and Pete and I moved through the ranks together so to speak.

“He was a wealth of info, but (had) great integrity and never dissed anyone, even off the record. He championed his players, had great knowledge and the ability to see that special quality in players that could see them make the step to professional football.”

Amazingly, Mulholland didn’t just deal with his illness LIKE the challenges listed above – he actually thought of them as more or less the same thing.

“What I’ve learned about cancer is you can control some things but you can’t control a lot of things. You don’t worry about what you can’t control. It’s something that is there and you’ve got to deal with it the best you can.

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“This is nothing different to what I dealt with during the 12 months in Paris – you deal with things on the run.”

Like ’Skull’, hooker Matt Fuller planned to make his life at the Perth Reds. And as with his coach, the vagaries of rugby league conspired against him and wreaked havoc.

Last week, the pair spoke one last time. Fuller wrote yesterday that Mulholland was “a man who took a wayward kid and turned him into a man, and made him a professional footballer when no one else saw what he saw.

“I was very fortunate to get to say goodbye to you and to hear you say one last time that you were proud of me and loved me.

“Even on your death bed you tried to make me feel good.”

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