You have skipped the navigation, tab for page content
How league was the remedy for Harbin's health: 'Best medicine for me'

Rugby league has always been a major part of Lionel Harbin’s life.

Since a young age, he has lived it and breathed it, whether it was through watching his father, John, as a coach or through taking to the field as a player himself.

With this passion, experience and knowledge behind him, it came as little surprise last year when Harbin took over as Central Queensland Capras head coach and helped inspire the club from a 2021 wooden spoon to their first finals campaign in 13 years.

Last year’s Hostplus Cup coach of the year, he then said he felt no pressure in trying to meet high expectations this season following 2022’s success. But 2023 has certainly thrown a lot at both the Capras and Harbin personally.

While injuries, suspensions and a new NRL affiliation have challenged Central Queensland on the field, the revelation Harbin has a cyst on his brain forced him to step away from the game he loves so much earlier this year.

Now, back at the helm as the Capras prepare to fight for a grand final spot in this week’s preliminary finals showdown with the Brisbane Tigers, Harbin shares with Queensland Rugby League the story of his year – from keeping the team on track to having to put his health first to playing for the Central Queensland community.

Lionel Harbin at Capras training. Photo: Luke Fletcher/QRL
Lionel Harbin at Capras training. Photo: Luke Fletcher/QRL

Rebuilding the Capras

Before the 2022 season, Central Queensland Capras had not played finals football since 2009.

They held back-to-back wooden spoons for seasons 2019 and 2021 – with 2020 cancelled due to COVID-19 – and endured many tough years of mixed results.

Harbin, who had previously been an assistant coach and an interim coach, came in as head coach for 2022 and his impact was immediate.

He said for years leading up to his appointment, the changes were happening off the field at the Capras, to change the culture and make them a stronger force, not just within the Hostplus Cup, but across all statewide competitions.

But, after he took over the reins in 2022, the results started to change on the field too.

The Capras finished fifth on the ladder and went on to play two weeks of finals footy, before bowing out after a loss to Burleigh Bears.

Harbin said his biggest goal was to get Central Queensland playing for their region.

“We’re a community team that represents our community,” Harbin said.

“We represent the people of Central Queensland, who are hard-working people. The area is built on the mining industry and farmers and that’s what we’re about.

“We want people who are willing to come here and work hard and represent the people of Central Queensland.

“We have a few PNG boys, for example, who are in our squad and if you look at their story they’re hard-working people who grew up on farms and worked very hard from a young age.

“They fit right into our region and team.”

Harbin after winning the 2022 Hostplus Cup coach of the year. Photo: Erick Lucero/QRL
Harbin after winning the 2022 Hostplus Cup coach of the year. Photo: Erick Lucero/QRL

For the Capras’ efforts last year – with Central Queensland also taking out the club championship - Harbin was awarded the 2022 Hostplus Cup coach of the year.

It could have been a lot of pressure for Harbin and his squad to back that up this season but, in 2023, they’ve been even stronger on the field.

They locked in a top four finish this season, guaranteeing themselves two weeks of finals action once again.

And while they suffered a Finals Week 1 loss – once again to the Bears – a victory over Sunshine Coast Falcons on home turf last week secured them their first preliminary final in 14 years.

For Harbin, what makes that back-up effort even more special is the challenges the team have had to overcome this year, from injuries to suspensions to getting used to the new NRL Dolphins affiliation.

“First off, it’s two completely different squads,” Harbin said of the differences between 2022 and 2023.

“We lost a fair chunk of our playing group from last year but we were able to keep some players – Jack Madden, Blake Moore, Trey Brown... they’re three of our spine.

“We lost Radean (Robinson) to Souths Logan but on the back of that we could pick up Aaron Moore, who was looking to come home and partner up with his brother. That was a really good get for us.

“Last year we didn’t really have many injuries and we didn’t have any suspensions. We weren’t getting any players back from the Dolphins so we were able to really build on our combinations and getting through that season unscathed was pretty remarkable.

“Compared to this year we’ve had injuries, season-ending as well. Our ill-discipline has also cost us throughout the year. This group has had to adapt and overcome more than last year but both years have been really good for the club.

“This year we were just aiming to build on last year. It was about the new guys coming into our squad, them understanding what we are about as a club and what we represent.

“I don’t feel the pressure in coaching. To me it’s just take it each week as it comes. That’s what I try to tell the players. We can only improve on our last performance and build on that.”

But the challenges on the field were just the start for the Capras in 2023.

Off the field, Harbin had his own surprise battle which started to arise from as early as their Round 1 win over the Tweed Seagulls.

Lionel Harbin. Photo: Luke Fletcher/QRL
Lionel Harbin. Photo: Luke Fletcher/QRL

Stepping back

The Capras’ 2023 season got off to a flying start – they claimed six straight wins to move into an early lead on the ladder.

But behind-the-scenes, things weren’t right for Harbin.

“It was probably when the season actually started… I wasn’t feeling well,” he said.

“I knew something was up and I was getting constant headaches and my body wasn’t functioning right. I could feel I wasn’t my normal self.

“I eventually went to the doctor and the first time I went, they sort of just brushed it off.

“But nothing changed and I was still getting constant headaches. The body was starting to shut down… I had no energy, I was just sleeping most of the day.

“So, I went and finally got some scans and blood tests.”

Harbin at Capras training. Photo: Luke Fletcher/QRL
Harbin at Capras training. Photo: Luke Fletcher/QRL

A CT scan revealed Harbin had a cyst on his brain.

A further MRI showed it was not cancerous or life-threatening – a massive relief for Harbin and his loved ones – but with the diagnosis, plus the revelation he was also struck down with glandular fever, Harbin was forced to step away from the game he loved so much.

“By the time the Burleigh game came around in the beginning of May, I just couldn’t keep going anymore,” he said.

“It is a bit of a shock when they tell you that you have something there and then you’re waiting for results and needing MRIs to confirm things.

“My doctor suggested I have some time off. That was one of the hardest things I had to do, was tell the players I had to step away for a while.

“I knew they were in good hands. We have really good staff here in (assistant coach) David Faiumu and (strength and conditioning coach) Justen Parle. I can’t thank them enough for what they did when I went away.

“I didn’t want to be letting the team down because I knew how much they put in regards to what they do each week, each year.

“It was hard but in hindsight I had to do it and it was the best thing for me.”

For Harbin, his time off involved a lot of rest and also pain management.

Nothing could be done for the cyst immediately, but he will see a surgeon in November to see if it is growing and whether or not he will require surgery.

One relief for Harbin was learning a cyst on the brain is not uncommon and a few people he knew had endured the same, with pain management and knowing when to rest the key to coping.

He was asked to stay away for one month but he didn’t quite make it the entire time.

When he took leave, it was ahead of Central Queensland’s Round 8 loss to Burleigh on May 6. He returned for their Round 11 victory over Norths Devils on May 27.

“It was very hard staying away,” Harbin said.

“I just missed it too much. I missed being around the boys and group and staff. It’s been a big part of my life so it was hard to stay away for that period of time but it was something I had to do.

“The rest was what I needed.”

Back where he belongs

While the vital rest was what Harbin needed, returning to his post was like a return home.

“It was probably the best medicine for me,” Harbin said.

“Once my body started to get back to normal and I started to get a bit more energy and could just be around the group, it was just what I needed.”

Harbin felt immense support from all around the region. He had the backing of the staff at the club and, of course, the playing group.

“They were really good,” Harbin said of his squad.

“They all understood that I just had to step away for a little bit. I was still in regular contact with them and on the phones and checking in on them and their performances.

“Working with the staff, I had to ease my way back into it. I couldn’t come straight back in.

“I’ve told the group since that I’m very proud of them and the community is very proud of them and what they’ve been able to achieve this year.”

And naturally, Harbin has had plenty of help from those outside of the club, including his parents, his two children – Monty, 27, and Teah, 24 – and his one-year-old granddaughter, Amaia.

“I had some really good support from my family and friends and the community in general around Rockhampton,” he said.

“My granddaughter, I suppose like most grandparents it’s a different kind of love. She’s the reason why I want to do well and she inspires me just to get up and be the best person I can be.”

And what Harbin has been able to do in return for his loved ones and his team is inspire those around him.

After their six straight wins to start the year, the Capras have since endured a rollercoaster of results, including struggling to get the two points while they were missing their courageous coach.

Capras captain Jack Madden said this lapse in May was for a number of reasons – including injuries and suspensions – but the absence of Harbin also played a part.

Madden said the club was stunned to hear about the cyst on his brain.

“It was a big shock to everyone and everyone was gobsmacked and emotional,” Madden said.

“It took a toll on us, definitely. We sort of went a little bit backwards but we’re on the right track now.”

But that reaction was no surprise given the impact Harbin has had on the group during his time there.

As they prepare for this Sunday’s preliminary final showdown with Brisbane Tigers at Totally Workwear Stadium, Madden knows they wouldn’t be where they are today without Harbin.

“He’s been massive for the whole club in general, not just the Hostplus Cup boys,” Madden said.

“He’s been at the forefront of it all - the turnaround of the club and how we’ve gone the last couple years, he’s at the head of that.

“He’s massive for us and he’s come in and really wanted us to connect to the past and inspire future generations.

“We were excited to have him back. It definitely wasn’t the same without him around. He was still calling me every week, nearly every second day.

“He was probably going more mad than when he was there. But it was great having him back in person in front of the group. We all got a buzz and were happy to see him back.

“Our main priority was for him to get his health right. We wanted him to be happy and healthy and come back to coaching when he was ready.”

Doing it for Central Queensland

Harbin may still not know what lies ahead with his health issues, but one thing he knows is the full focus for the Capras is now on this Sunday.

After their stunning victory over the Sunshine Coast in Rockhampton last week, the club quickly turned their attention to the task ahead this Sunday.

The Capras have never played in a Cup grand final in their 28-year history.

And while Harbin and his team are not getting too far ahead of themselves – especially with the massive challenge of the Tigers in front of them – they know what it would mean to the Central Queensland community if they were able to bring the trophy back to Rockhampton.

“Probably one of my main goals coming into the role was to make it a club and team the community were proud to support,” Harbin said.

“That’s been our key focus. Our community is our main driver and we know that and it’s something we keep talking about and what keeps inspiring this group to keep working hard.

“It’s a massive opportunity this weekend.

“We’ve got ourselves in this position because we’ve had a really good season and we’ve been able to overcome those obstacles throughout the year and challenges throughout the year.

“That’s a sign of a good side. All we can do is go out and represent our community and play to the best of our ability and give it everything we’ve got. If we do that, our community will be proud.”

The Brisbane Tigers versus Central Queensland Capras preliminary final will be shown live on, Kayo Freebies and 9Now.

Main image: Lionel Harbin at Capras training. Photo: Luke Fletcher/QRL

To snap up your seats to the 2023 Hostplus Cup and Hastings Deering Colts grand finals, click here.

For more information on grand final day, click here.

Acknowledgement of Country

Queensland Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

Platinum Partners

View All Partners