New Queensland Maroons assistant coach Matt Ballin has come a long way from the kid in Kingaroy who dreamed big and was too shy to speak when he got Petero Civoniceva’s autograph.
“This is really exciting… an absolute honour,” Ballin said of joining coach Billy Slater and assistants Johnathan Thurston and Josh Hannay after Cameron Smith stepped down to focus on grassroots footy.
“I just love this state. I come from Kingaroy in country Queensland which is just a real passionate town about the about the state and I know how much it means to the farmers and the people who are working class out there.
“So it's really nice for me to be able to give back to those people and go and represent our state as a coach. It’s really nice.”
The proud Queenslander became FOG #170 when he donned the Maroons jersey for the State of Origin series opener in 2010 when Smith was out injured.
“It was pretty surreal… I roomed with Cam Smith all week and he was fantastic, just preparing me for the game. I remember Mal was the coach and he said, ‘just go out and be Matt Ballin…. don't try and be Cameron Smith, just be Matt Ballin… that’s why you’ve been picked to play on this team’,” Ballin said.
“I remember Darren Lockyer was on the left, Johnathan Thurston was on the right as halves, Billy Slater was at the back and then we had forwards like Petero Civoniceva, Nate Myles.
“I just had this great group of people around me that really supported me and made me feel like a Queenslander and then I just went out and did my job and that was as simple as that.”
Following Smith is a fact not lost on Ballin. First, as a player. Now, as an assistant coach.
“I only played one game for Queensland because Cameron Smith was obviously there in place of me for that, but it was just an amazing experience,” Ballin said.
“I never thought I would get the chance with Smithy there, but I got a chance and made the most of it and now that I'm coaching… it's just been a real natural progression.”
Getting the call from Slater still feels surreal for Ballin.
“It was excitement straight away and then I was like ‘it seems to be always Matt Ballin following Cameron Smith… whenever he decides to do whatever he decides to do, I get a chance’,” Ballin laughed.
“It was excitement, number one, then probably a bit of nerves number two. Working with players on this big stage…I think you'd be a bit of a robot if you didn't feel nervous.
“Then it was back to excitement. It's going to be really exciting, working with the coaches and the squad, but really special too, just to be a coach of Queensland and try and win this series again. That’s the main thing.”
Ballin, who amassed 220 NRL games for Manly and Wests Tigers before becoming Brisbane Broncos assistant coach to Kevin Walters, has worked with the Maroons on game days during the past couple of years and was last year’s Queensland Under 19 coach.
Ballin said the little kid in Kingaroy never expected to be where he was now.
“Never, never. I dreamed of it. I dreamed watching Wally Lewis, Alan Langer, Kevin Walters, Gorden Tallis dragging Hodgson over the sideline, like all those dreams were part of my childhood and I guess you just work hard as a player and eventually I got a chance,” Ballin said.
“Little Matty Ballin was pretty quiet, just sitting there. I remember getting Petero Civoniceva to sign an autograph for me and I couldn't say anything… he just kept talking to me and I couldn't say anything because I was just in awe of him.
“I'm a bit more talkative now and I’ll be vocal with what I want out of the players, but I'll be soaking up as much as I can from them and all the rest of the coaching staff.
“Billy was good enough to have me in just for game days the last couple of years and I just made the most of that… did the best I could with the players and now I get an opportunity to coach full time with the team which is something that I've only really processed in the last 12 hours.
“I don't think I'll change too much of my coaching… I’ll just make sure I'm prepared and give the players the best shot to do really well in the three games against New South Wales.
“I just want to put in a lot of hard work and do the people of Queensland proud… just happy to be involved and try and make the guys better players and better people.”Matt Ballin Maroons assistant coach
Ballin said he had every confidence in everyone involved to help the Maroons do every Queenslander proud.
“I think the main thing about being a Queenslander is you’re picked to be in the team or the coaching staff because of the attributes you naturally bring,” Ballin said.
“I think of myself as a hard worker… I try and be diligent with everything I have to cover as a player or coach and then I just bring a joy for coaching and playing the game.
“I'll continue to bring those… when I think of others like Jonathan Thurston, he just brings such energy and enthusiasm. Smith was always just like a strategy craft, understanding what happens in the game. Slater was just a student. He knew exactly what every other player was doing and their strengths or weaknesses.
“So I'll just focus on what I bring to the game and to the team and I'm sure that's why Billy picked me.”
Ballin said he expected his role to be around the middle.
“Obviously in that position there, there's Benny Hunt who's playing hooker, Harry Grant who I've worked with before, and the middles we’ve got Tino, Patty, Moe, some really fantastic middles there all the way across the board,” Ballin said.
Media conference: Maroons assistant coach Matt Ballin
“Flegler, who I've worked with at the Broncos before…. I guess those guys are where I'm going to be focusing on and I'll just do a really good job with them, teach them or help them with as much as I can about the game.”
Ballin said really, though, he looked forward to working with the high quality players right across the park including Daly Cherry-Evans, who he had known since Cherry-Evans debuted at Manly more than 10 years ago.
“Just working with all of them is fantastic,” Ballin said.
“Tommy Dearden, I've watched him as a young fella come through. Reece Walsh, I’ve worked with at Broncos. You could go on and just say about all of them… Corey Horsburgh, got to meet him properly last year and his family… that was fantastic. All of them. It’s a real pleasure working with any of them.
“I'll be in there doing my job and just enjoying the enjoying the occasion. Go Queensland.”