Nathan Cayless is the only Kiwi ever to have lifted the Rugby League World Cup. The Sydney-born prop – who qualified for New Zealand through his parents – had a stellar career which included captaining the Parramatta Eels from the age of 21. He is now the head coach of the Wentworthville Magpies in the Intrust Super Premiership. Kiwileaguecentral.com went one-on-one with Cayless recently to learn more about his story. (Main photo: photosport.nz).
KLC: Let’s start with what must surely be among the career highlights – the 2008 Rugby League World Cup victory. Does that mean something different to you now in retirement than it did at the time?
NC: I was over the moon when it happened; I felt hugely satisfied. Obviously I didn’t get an opportunity to win a grand final at club level, but that was close and was my grand final, and I said that to Stephen Kearney and Wayne Bennett. I thanked them for the opportunity.
I suppose the older you get the more you sort of reflect on your career. When you are playing you are always looking at ‘OK, what’s next?’, but as you get a bit older you look back and appreciate those things.
How pleasing has it been to see the Kiwis go on and build on that since then? With a number of tournament victories and a period of dominance against the Kangaroos.
It has been great and a lot of that credit has to go to Stephen Kearney, he has done a great job and kept a good nucleus of the side together. They now have a couple of really good young halves together and the forward pack has been outstanding with some very good players coming through.
The thing I like most is they are a young side and they are going to be together for a very long time. They have got their principals together, they know what they need to do when they come into camp and no longer is it like it was with six different guys coming in all the time, that real core is there and they lead the way.
You were born in Australia but have always been a proud Kiwi, how did both you and your brother Jason maintain that strong connection to New Zealand?
Both mum and dad are proud Kiwis and all of our family lived, and still do live, in New Zealand as well. Mum was very passionate about out maori heritage and culture, so she instilled a lot of that into us at a young age. My brother and I used to go and do cultural groups and stuff like that over in Sydney.
Our roots were well entrenched and while my brother and I went through the Australian system as kids, as soon as we got the opportunity we wanted to represent our family and New Zealand.
These days we hear a lot about kids in the same position being pressured into declaring their eligibility at a young age, and being persuaded to go one direction or another in terms of State of Origin or New Zealand. Was that the case for you guys as well?
Not really, it came as a bit of a shock to a lot of people when we chose New Zealand, but they supported us and that’s just the way it was. My mum and dad were actually pretty shocked, but they never put any pressure on us and whatever we wanted to do they were willing to support us 100 per cent.
Do you still keep in contact with many of the guys you played with in the Kiwi sides over the years?
Absolutely, we had a reunion for the 2005 Tri-Nations winning side, which Sir Peter Leitch organised recently. We are all up to different things now and are scattered all around the world, but whenever you see the boys it’s like you are brothers for life, and that’s the culture that has been instilled with the Kiwis really early on.
It’s taken you a few years to get into the coaching game Nathan, was this always the plan or did you kind of fall into it?
When I finished playing rugby league in 2010 I had sort of had enough and I didn’t want to do any coaching, I just wanted to get right away from rugby league. But after about six months of being retired, in which time I was working in commercial real estate, I realised how much I missed it and wanted to get back involved with footy.
So I got back into doing some sponsorship work at the Eels, but again, I still felt like I was missing something. I gave coaching a go with the U-18 side in 2014 and I really enjoyed it and loved that buzz you get from game day and training. The highs and lows become addictive, and coaching allows you to live that without getting smashed up as a player.
What did you do between retiring from footy and picking up these gigs with the Eels then?
I tried a few different things with real estate and a few other corporate roles, but nothing sort of gets you buzzing like coaching. Being a professional rugby league player for 14 years…that is all I really knew, those highs and lows. I went straight out of school and that’s all I did. It’s frustrating and when you aren’t doing well it’s tough, but it’s competitive and you want to beat the other team or the other coach, which is what I like.
You have been appointed Wentworthville Magpies head coach for the rest of the year, after usual coach Joey Grima became unavailable for personal health reasons, so it’s been straight into the deep end for you mid-season…
Yeah, this is my first time coaching a full senior side and I have got the responsibility of coaching this side for the rest of the year, so we will try and make the best of that and see where it leads.
It’s been tough mate, I had my first session less than a week before our game against the Warriors on June 4 and I didn’t really know many of the players, other than the young kids who had come through the system. It was about learning all the plays and what the team does.
Now that you have come through to this level does moving on to the NRL at some point interest you?
Right now I work full-time with the Eels and look after our elite player programme, with talent squads from U-14s through to U-20s. I am really enjoying working with the kids, I head coached the U-18s this year with Parra and starting doing a bit of work with the U-20s. NRL stuff might be a little bit far away for me, but I am enjoying what I am doing so far.
— Parramatta Eels (@TheParraEels) June 6, 2016
Given you only retired recently, do you have a different philosophy or outlook on the game as a coach?
As I say to the players here, rugby league is a simple game but we try and complicate it. Since 1908 the game has been all about running harder, tackling harder and competing harder than your opposition, and then you can come up with a fancy play every now and then.
I was a smaller sort of forward so I was coached from very early on to use a lot of skill. Move the ball with a lot of passing, and personally I don’t believe we do that enough with our big men. Our big men are very skilful but we use them as battering rams. I like to see a guy play a bit of off-the-cuff stuff. But that’s the way the game is now, it’s very defence orientated and everyone wants to get in and get their job done, make sure they make minimal mistakes and don’t risk too much.
If you look at a game like Origin I this year, it was a quality game but a really dull and defence-orientated game where it looked like neither team wanted to make an error, and therefore didn’t play much footy. I like to play a bit of footy and work hard for your teammates, those are my basic sort of philosophies.
How much has the game changed in terms of coaching since you first started as a player vs. now?
Mate, the teams are a lot better coached now, with no disrespect to the coaches coaching back then, but defensively everyone knows how to defend now. There are not as many opportunities to make breaks and score tries because everyone knows their job and knows what they need to do.
It’s tougher to play exciting footy, but also the crowd come along and want to watch tries, they don’t want to watch inside pressures and all that stuff, they want to see big fancy stuff, whereas coaches love all that little stuff.
When you look back across your 14-year playing career what is the standout feature?
Just the friendships and the hard work and the life skills you learn from it. Being early to training to make sure you are on time, you learn that sort of stuff and respecting people and teammates, working hard for your mate – that’s what rugby league is all about. Once you get out into the business world those skills still apply.
It’s been great, I have really enjoyed the ride and still have a lot of close friendships with many players. Coaching makes you feel a little bit old I suppose, and I am coaching against guys I used to play with now in the likes of Jeff Robson and Ali Lauitiiti, but it’s a good buzz as well.