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Legend Q&A: Craig Coleman

Craig Coleman was the epitome of the cheeky halfback during a lengthy career, mainly at South Sydney, over the 1980s and 90s.

A clever playmaker who loved to engage in some banter with opponents, he played 267 premiership matches for the Rabbitohs, Gold Coast and Wests before retiring at the end of 1996.

"Tugger" coached the Bunnies either side of their two-year omission from the competition but the team had little success, winning just 17 of his 54 games in charge.

NRL.com has delved into the Rugby League Week vault to dust off this article, which first appeared on September 5, 2007.

Craig Coleman

As a member of the last Souths team to make the finals in 1989, you must be stoked at the club’s resurgence in recent years?

Yeah, it’s been great to see the boys going well again. Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes a Court and then James Packer have really turned the place around . . . I just wish they came a few years earlier when I was coach!  I can see Souths being a super club in two or three years.

How different was it when you came to grade in 1980?

We had the talent but the club was not professional and didn’t have the vision. But we had our share of success. In 1981, Mario Fenech and I played in a great under-23 side coached by Brian Smith.

Brian was just 28 himself then but did a great job – we lost only two games all year and won the grand final at the SCG, which was special for me because I’d gone there so many times as a kid to cheer Souths on.

Were you a big fan of giving your opponents a bit of verbal?

I liked to chat out there on the field but I could afford to with guys like Mario, Les Davidson, David Boyle, Dean Rampling and Ian Roberts looking after me in the forwards.

Davo carried two sleeping pills in his hands . . . before they knew it, rival forwards could be down and out. He was a handy guy to have in the team. I used to tell Davo, “I’ll do your thinking, you just do my fighting” – and he did.

What was it like playing alongside Mario?

He was the nicest bloke off the field but we used to say, as soon as he put that black tape around his head, he turned himself into a monster. He became the meanest man in the world and wanted to win at all costs.

And it’s no secret, but he hated Benny Elias. He would look at the schedule and count down the days until we played Balmain every year. But Mario was also a fun guy; every week at training I’d get some scissors and cut up his undies, and the next week he’d come back with them neatly sewed back together by his mum.

Peter Sterling and Craig Coleman during a match.
Peter Sterling and Craig Coleman during a match. ©Rugby League Week

You pushed the limits with referees – did you ever get sent off?

Just once – against the Eels in front of a full house at Parra in ’86. We had two guys [Fenech and Roberts] sin-binned and I lost my cool. I called the ref [Phil Cooley] a cheating you-know-what.

I didn’t think he’d leave us with 10 men but he did. Somehow we held on for a draw and I got a $2000 fine for my troubles.

You had four stints in England – you must have enjoyed it over there?

It was a good place to play footy, for sure. I went the first time in 1986 and had a brief stint at Widnes and then I played under my old coach Brian Smith at Hull two years later.

The next year, Leeds signed Peter Sterling but he broke his shoulder, so they took me instead, which I thought was a great compliment. I had a great time and became close buddies with guys like Garry Schofield and Lee Crooks. And I also had a year at Salford after Souths let me go in 1992.

Craig Coleman talks to his team during his time as Rabbitohs coach.
Craig Coleman talks to his team during his time as Rabbitohs coach. ©NRL Photos

Incredibly, you were forced to play park football the following season. How did that come about?

Yeah, I came back from England after the February 1 signing deadline that was in back then and wanted to sign with Gold Coast but the ARL wouldn’t let me.

I threatened to take them to court but I ended up playing out the year with Coogee Wombats in the Souths junior league. I eventually got to the Coast in 1994 for a couple of years before finishing my career at Wests in 1996.

We didn’t win many games but we had fun. My childhood hero Tommy Raudonikis was the coach and you just wanted to play for him, he was such a passionate bloke.

One day he brought a pig’s heart into the dressing room before a game and threw it around to the players . . . it was his way of saying we needed more ticker!

Craig Coleman in a legends match at Redfern Oval.
Craig Coleman in a legends match at Redfern Oval. ©NRL Photos

What was it like coming back to coach Souths in 1998-99 and again in 2002?

It was an honour but we struggled. We had a good year in 1999 but deep down we knew we were going to get thrown out by the League at the end of the season so there was a fair bit of tension.

Then I had the reins again when we were reinstated in 2002 and we were really a spare-parts team. We won five games and they sacked me.

I was devastated and bitter for quite a long time but Russell Crowe has made me feel part of the club again. Anyone who has shed blood for Souths is welcome as far as he is concerned and I’d love it if one day guys like George Piggins and John Sattler came back to the place ... they should hop on and enjoy the ride.