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Foggy memories: Shillo’s pec tear bravery on debut a culture lesson

When David Shillington played on after tearing a pectoral muscle on his Maroons debut in 2009, he didn’t think too much of it.

Coach Mal Meninga thanked Shillington afterwards for putting the team first, and the Canberra prop got his first taste of what Queensland culture really means.

With 11 years of hindsight, it is the leadership and culture of that stellar Queensland team that he was a part of that stands out for the man known as 'Shillo'.

"I tore my pec’ early in the second half on debut and kept playing on,” Shillington recalled.

"Just the other day I was having a coffee with Brent Tate and we were talking about culture and leadership. I was reflecting on what happened that night on my debut.

"After the game, Mal came up to me and said 'I understand you tore your pec so I appreciate you playing on and what you did for the team'. I didn’t think much of it and I certainly didn’t want any acknowledgement of it.

"That was my first camp with Mal and I just remember how he drove everyone’s individual accountability for the team, and how it was all about the team and the state and not about you.

"Playing through injury, like all team mates do, wasn’t special in one respect. But I said to Tatey that I think Mal was acknowledging that, for a team to be successful in Origin, it takes a lot of individual sacrifice for the team and the state."

Shillington enjoyed exchanging stories with Tate about what Meninga had instilled in the group.

"We were talking about how leadership and culture go hand-in-hand," Shillington said.

"Tatey was saying how in 2006, Mal got together a group of 40 or 50 potential Queensland players, got them to break up in small groups and write down on butchers paper how they wanted the state to view them as a player and how they would like to be remembered as well.

“From there, he built a culture that led to their success.”

Meninga had other powerful ways of getting across messages as well. In the 2012, the series was tied at 1-1 and NSW had just won 12-6 in a spiteful affair. It was time to press some buttons ahead of the decider.

"The coaching staff cut up this video of the niggly stuff that the Blues were doing to JT and Cooper Cronk in the previous game,” Shillington recalled.

"Mal stops the tape, and you know how serious he talks, and says 'so what do you guys think about that? Is this what you want the Blues to do to your team mates? Do you want Blues’ elbows in Johnno’s face and do you want to let them twist Cooper’s ankle… do you? What are you going to do about it?’

"Of course we all got fired up. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.

"After that video session, we went to a gym and boxed the hell out of each other for an hour-and-a-half and it set the tone for the whole week. It was all about how we were going to take it to the Blues, what it means to us and how we were going to protect our team mates when they treat us like that. Then we went out and beat them in the decider."

Shillington arrived at Canberra in 2009 and his representative career soon kicked off, with him playing 14 Tests for Australia and eight Origin games for Queensland in the following five years.

He was thrilled to get selected and also nervous as well in his first Origin camp.

"I spent the whole week trying to learn all of these elaborate set plays from taps and restarts. I am just a humble front-rower so that was quite intimidating," he grinned.

"I thought I had it all down-pat, but then you get on the field and when Smithy or JT turn and tell you the play you can’t hear them anyway.

"Then, because you have done them so many times at training you see Hodgo scoot across the back of the ruck and Sammy Thaiday get turned under and you think 'that’s right, that is the 'Big Artie' play or the 'Four X’ play' and second nature kicks in."

The speed and emotion of the game was at a level Shillington had not experienced. It was a genuine baptism of fire. The Maroons had wrapped up the series and led 2-0, but were desperate for a clean sweep.

The Blues had other ideas and won 28-16, but not before one of the most volatile endings to an Origin contest. Brett White and Steve Price went toe-to-toe with two minutes left. Price was knocked out and Trent Waterhouse was subsequently sent off for his late involvement. Thaiday was sin-binned in the final seconds after a late brawl. It all happened.

"I was almost in disbelief. When Waterhouse was the third man in, all hell broke loose," Shillington said.

"Us Queensland boys saw the foul play and wanted to get back at them and it became a debacle. The game has changed since then and you don’t want to see that sort of thing too much, but on the other hand what makes Origin special is that passion for representing your state. It was an incredible game to be a part of."

In 2010 Shillington played all games of a clean sweep for the Maroons and the only 3-0 triumph of Queensland's eight consecutive series wins.

"I clearly remember we went 2-0 up and coming into camp for Game III Darren Lockyer pulled everyone aside,” Shillington said.

"Locky said 'in  all my years of playing Origin and witnessing it, you don’t get many opportunities for a clean sweep like this. If we don’t win this we will all regret it’. The boys all tuned into that and played our guts out.

"That year, all the Queensland players were in good form. Look through the team and half a dozen could be nominated as Immortals one day with a few shoo-ins. It wasn’t a 'big three' or a 'big four'. It was more like a 'big 10'.

"You had Lockyer, Thurston, Cronk, (Cameron) Smith, (Greg) Inglis and (Billy) Slater, but there was also (Justin) Hodges, Thaiday, (Nate) Myles and all these guys were consistently high performers and leaders in the team."

Shillington missed the 2011 Origin series when, playing for Canberra, he put a shot on Wests Tigers forward Keith Galloway and tore his pec, as he had on debut in 2009.

After his stellar displays in 2010, Meninga recalled Shillington the following year and he was again integral up front to the 2012 success.

"Queensland was a long way down the line with the winning streak then so you felt the pressure to not rest on your laurels or  the previous year’s performance," Shillington said.

"You felt pressure to raise the bar and the standard so I was glad to be part of that 2012 series. We didn’t have our way as much as we did in 2010, but we got there in the end."

It was a Cronk field goal in the 21-20 win by the Maroons in the decider that proved the difference.

"I talk about leadership and culture and I refer to that field goal and how it was no mistake. We had a day off on the Monday as we traditionally did and myself and some of the other front-rowers went and saw a movie, had some popcorn and relaxed," Shillington recalled.

"Cooper was by himself kicking field goals and penalty goals, just sharpening his pencil before the game.

"Two days later, he gets the challenge of kicking a field goal from 40 metres out and he nails it because of the hard work he put in during the days and years leading into it. It was no fluke. It was about pure hard work and sacrifice."

In 2013, the Maroons lost the opening game of the series and it proved to be Shillington’s last.

"It was a shocking game for us. No-one played well. JT had a crook groin leading in and our preparation wasn’t as good as it should have been," Shillington said.

"Right from the get-go, we didn’t have our finger on the pulse and we weren’t playing Origin football.

"In the fallout from that, Mal took the opportunity to bring in some fresh faces and cycle out some old ones in myself and Ash Harrison. That is a normal part of any team and especially Origin, so there are no hard feelings at all."

The Maroons returned to form in Game II and went on to win the series.

"I would have loved to have played one more Origin and the second game of that series was back at Suncorp and it was like a different team. We bounced back like you wouldn’t believe," Shillington said.

"If I’d hung on for one more game, I may have got to play a bunch more, but I will always appreciate the games I got to play and the team mates I got to play alongside."

Shillington has plenty on his plate these days post-football. One of his roles is working with the NRL in their mental health education program.

"That is something I really enjoy, in delivering mental health education to our teens at junior rugby league clubs," he said.

"I also do a bit of work with Consult Australia, an advocacy group for the building and construction industry.

"I also do some work for  PlayBook Coach, where I coach up-and-coming rugby league players individually and in schools. PlayBook Coach is simply a platform that connects people that want to be coached and mentored with coaches and mentors, and some of them include guys like Scotty Prince, Wendell [Sailor] and Gilly [Trevor Gillmeister]."

Shillington takes NRL State of Mind to Gove Peninsula

Shillington retired at the end of the 2016 season after 215 games for the Roosters, Raiders and Titans. Initially, it was a challenging time.

"It is pretty tough retiring. Your body is banged up and all of a sudden you have to start afresh,” he said.

"Even though you have done a bit of study, you don’t have any real life work experience after being in the rugby league bubble.

"You can start resenting the game a little bit. I know I did. People would say 'but it was all worth it, right?' You feel as though it should be worth it, but then you are walking around injured and starting all over.

"But, staying working for the NRL in the mental health program and working for the Men of League Foundation for quite a while,  you get around to the regions and visit the places like Roma, Innisfail and places where people play the game for love.

"They don’t play it for money or media attention. People that run those country clubs do it for the love and it has that family feel that brings the community together with that sense of connection and belonging.

"Seeing all that made me fall in love with the game again that I started playing as a six-year-old."