Richie Barnett – behind the jersey

The recent Sky Sport ads confirm that it’s our dollar which keeps sport in spin. So it’s not surprising that we, as fans, feel a sense of ownership over the players too. But do we really know them? JON RAWLINSON recently discovered that there was much more to one former league great than he ever expected.

Richie attempts to shrug off a tackle during the Legends of League match 2011. Photo Andrew Cornaga, courtesy of Photosport

I know Richie Barnett. I’ve ‘met’ this former rugby league star numerous times, cheering him loudly from the sidelines and even more loudly from my couch. However, after running into him at a Botany coffee shop, I soon realised I didn’t really know Richie at all.

Back in the early ‘naughties’, this former Kiwis’ captain and fullback copped more flack than GI Joe on a tour duty. He was slow, lazy, he lacked commitment, they said. But behind the public image was a man struggling to come to terms with a condition which would end his sporting career.

Beginning as a virus – contracted in Australia in 2001 – Richie was (unknowingly, at the time) battling a debilitating disorder known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). He says the hardest part was being in the dark as to why he was (to put it incredibly mildly) always tired.

“It got to a point where I just couldn’t operate during games. If the ball went to the right and I was to the far left I thought ‘please don’t kick it that way’ because I knew I couldn’t make it. That’s how bad it became,” he says.

“But no one could give me any indication of what the hell was going wrong. I thought I was going mad. I couldn’t really tell anyone because I didn’t understand it myself.”
While still playing in the UK Superleague, Richie was, at last, diagnosed with CFS. Relieved to know what was wrong, he gave football another go.

“I was with Hull for almost a couple of years but, to be brutally honest, I was only at about 70 percent. I don’t know how I got through it. The pressure of being a top line player and having this illness stripped my whole life away. I felt like it couldn’t get any worse.

“I couldn’t be around people. I slept prior to training. I went from being one of the fittest in the side to one of the slowest. It was like I’d had a 50kg put on my back and been asked to run around the field.”

On returning to New Zealand, Richie found a genuine sense of solace when visiting CFS specialist, Dr Rosamund Vallings, based at the Howick Health & Medical Centre.
“Ros is an expert in this field; she’s an absolute gem! She helped me realise there’s no magic potion; it comes down to support, to understanding what you’re going through,” he explains.

“You’re negative because energy levels are so low, you’re depressed, basically. For 14 years I had to put that face on and try to appear positive because you can’t live your life 24/7 on the down. You have to surround yourself with positive people.”

Since 2007 the Howick local has retained a stake in the game as a commentator, currently with Sky Sport. However, this dream job began on a nightmarish note.

“I used to get so nervous because I didn’t know what I would say; things would come out wrong. I had taken so many [head knocks while playing] it’s not funny. My memory has certainly copped a flogging, which I think is down to concussions. And, with CFS as well, I couldn’t even think what I was going to say at times!”

Fortunately, thanks to perseverance, experience, support and a love of the job, Richie is now able to stay up with the play of a game he loves.

But that’s not all. Today, he is a spokesman for ANZMES (The Associated New Zealand ME Society), raising awareness of CFS and similar conditions, and offering support to others afflicted. He is also kept busy with the Sports Implementation Foundation, designed to help prisoners become reintegrated into society through sport.

Richie has not made remarkable recovery; it doesn’t work that way. But he has learnt to manage and to play the cards he’s been dealt. In this respect, at least, he has been tireless.

After our chat, I’m a bit more enlightened about the quality of this rugby league legend, and I sure as hell know more about the calibre of the man.

World Cup – can we bet on black?

Fourteen tournaments, three winners. It’s hard to picture the upcoming Rugby League World Cup (Oct 27 – Dec 2) as anything but a three horse race. However, former Kiwis’ star fullback, Richie Barnett, believes a dark horse could well turn more than just a few heads.

“I think a lot of the countries have lifted a gear or two; all the island nations are playing out of their skin. Take Papua New Guinea or Fiji, crikey, they’ve been on fire! They’ll be hugely impressive this season,” the ex Kiwis’ skipper confirms. “But I do see England, under [former Kangaroos’ coach] Wayne Bennett, as the big threat.”

During the competition’s history, Australia has dominated, winning 10, with Great Britain (now competing as individual nations) claiming three titles and the Kiwis just one victory in 2008. While other nations may be surging ahead, Richie believes the Kiwis could be held to the rail this time around.

“I can see the Kiwis building towards something quite special but, in the last year or two I’ve seen a decline and, in Australia, a shift from what was an incredible side to one that’s on another [even higher] level. My concern is that we’ve dropped down while they’re on the up in a big way,” he says.

Recent performances from the Kiwis leave plenty to be desired – including an 18 all draw with Scotland and two losses (34-8 and 30-12) to Australia from their last three outings.

“The difference between how the team was on paper [during last year’s Four Nations] and what was achieved on field was most disappointing,” the one time Kiwis’ selector believes.

However, with New Zealand co-hosting the cup (along with Australia and Papua New Guinea) for the first time since the 1970s, home ground advantage could prove vital.
“The saving grace [for New Zealand] is that they’ll be playing a number of games at home, that’s a huge plus, no question.”

For the boys in black to re-gather the cup will require all involved to be on their game, including head coach, David Kidwell, who stepped up from assistant to replace Stephen Kearney late last year.

“We need all our players on board if we’re going to be competitive – the Kieran Forans, Shaun Johnsons. Our problems have often come when a top player from the spine [hooker, halfback, fullback] has been missing. You just can’t compete against Aussie, or England for that matter, with makeshift players,” he says.

“What are we doing to make sure we have the best game plan in place and the players are all on the same page? David is inexperienced at that level – there’s a bit of a difference when you’re put in the hot seat – so I hope he has the support around him. It seems like they have a real mountain to climb but anything’s achievable in sport.”

As long as the Kangaroos continue to dominate the World Cup race, it seems international footie is destined to play second fiddle.

“There’s no question that State of Origin is [the pinnacle of the game]; it’s a hundred million dollar business,” Richie adds. “The more competitive England, New Zealand and other nations become, the stronger the international game will be.”