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He’d pick you up like you were a pig

I caught up with Warren Ryan recently and he said, ‘You were very strong for a little fella, Jimmy, when you used to tackle’.


I told him that was because when I was first starting out in rugby league, I worked as a gym attendant at the Balmain Leagues Club.


I was obsessed with training and lifting weights and did a lot of extras outside of my footy training. This was back when footballers didn’t do much work in the gym.


It helped me a lot because I was a smaller bloke that liked to run the ball back hard. And I had to be tough, because the ’80s and ’90s was a rough era to be playing league.


A lot of people will agree with me when I say that fullback is actually the most dangerous position to play. When other players take hit-ups they’re usually running at a set defensive line, from a much shorter distance. As a fullback you’re returning kicks, running full-pelt at 13 blokes who are running at you, trying to belt you.


With a combined 40-odd metres for both sides to build up momentum, that’s a huge collision. And it’s the fullback who’s usually going to come off second-best.


I copped a lot of high shots, swinging arms and elbows over the years. I was just lucky I developed a bit of a step and a swerve, because when you can’t evade the defenders you cop a lot of extra treatment.



The one player I never liked to run at was Noel ‘Crusher’ Cleale, because I knew what he would do every time. He was a bit lazy, but if he got a hold of you he’d put his hand between your legs and pick you up like you were a pig, then spear you into the ground on your head.


There was a picture taken at Leichhardt Oval in around 1985, of him and Paul McCabe picking me up in front of the grandstand. Crusher had me between the legs and McCabe had me by the back of the jersey driving me down vertically onto my head.


I remember throwing the ball away as I was coming towards the ground and trying to roll because I knew I was in trouble. The referee didn’t even give a penalty. He called a scrum and gave Manly the feed because he ruled that I’d lost the ball in the tackle.


The photo was inside the cover of Rugby League Week the following Thursday, as journalists called on the ARL to outlaw spear tackles. They were so dangerous. Getting rid of them is one way the game has changed for the better.


I’m lucky I never got seriously injured. I put that down to the fact I was fit and flexible. I did a lot of stretching. I never did a hamstring or a calf muscle in my whole career. I was going to war every week and I made sure I was ready for anything.




How I got hooked on martial arts

Since retiring from footy, I’ve thrown myself into martial arts. I’m now a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and mixed martial arts (MMA).


It’s something I fell into back in 2001, when my son Kieren was 14. He wasn’t a big fella back then, so I thought I’d get him into some martial arts for self-defence. I’d done a bit of Taekwando when I was a kid and it helped me a lot, because I wasn’t very big at that age either. I thought it could help Kieren the same way.


I was working in real estate at the time and by chance I’d just sold this bloke’s house and he was a big believer in BJJ. He told me that he’d try and find someone to train us over near where we were living.


He found an instructor named Simon Farnsworth who lived in Dural and was training out of his garage. I gave Simon a call and organised for me and Kieren to go over and do some classes.


When we turned up, we were greeted by this guy who was about 5’8’’, 70kg. I thought we were in the wrong place. We laugh about it now because I was expecting a big, aggressive fighter. But as I soon discovered, that’s not what jiu-jitsu is about. It’s not about size, it’s about technique and respect.



Kieren and I trained with Simon once a week for about three years until Kieren’s footy started picking up and he had to stop going. I was hooked by this point, so I decided to keep going.


In 2008, Simon opened up a gym in Castle Hill called the Universal Combat Academy, training Machado BJJ. On the first night it was just me, Simon, his son Jake and his brother. These days we’ve got 90 students, 50 kids and 40 adults, and we run sessions four nights a week.


I’ve been training there three nights a week for the last 10 years and finally earned my black belt two years ago. With other martial arts you can probably get a black belt in four to six years. In BJJ, it usually takes between 10 and 12 to get there. I was a natural, it took me 18 years.


For me it’s just a great way to stay fit and an opportunity to interact and train with the younger guys. I’m 58, the oldest by 10 years, so it’s great to still be a part of that discipline of turning up to training, even when you don’t feel like it.


My middle son Rhys took up BJJ in 2010 after finishing his footy career. He’s a brown belt now, after competing in many competitions. I’ve never gone in a tournament, so I really admire his courage in doing that.


Most importantly, it’s been great to share that time with him and it’s brought us closer during some difficult times. We’re looking forward to his wedding in April next year.




Of course, I’ll be watching the footy!

There’s a huge UFC card on down in Melbourne on Sunday, with Rob Whittaker fighting Israel Adesanya for the middleweight belt, but I won’t be tuning in at all this time.


League is still my first love, so I’ll be out at Homebush for a day of grand finals. I can’t wait.


Ricky Stuart has a team of good players with plenty of heart and he has them playing a really nice style of footy as well.


As for the Roosters, I can’t help but wonder how on earth it’s possible for them to have their team under the salary cap. It’s ridiculous.


They’ve got the best player in the world at fullback, one of the best halfbacks, a Clive Churchill winner at five-eighth, the two best centres in the world, NSW and Australian captain in the second row. They’ve got Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Jake Friend, a rising star in Victor Radley, and an Origin player coming off the bench in Angus Crichton.


The Raiders will have to pull off one hell of an upset. A couple of months back, I thought they’d be lucky to get into the eight, let alone make the top four. But the signs were there when they beat Melbourne at the end of the regular season. That was the performance that showed they might have what it takes.


As for the UFC, I’ll have to catch up on the replay sometime during the week. For what it’s worth, I reckon Rob will get the win down in Melbourne!


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