Do you know why Queenslanders call their favourite beer XXXX?
(And, no, it’s not because they can’t spell “beer”, but I like the way you’re thinking).
It’s a throwback to brewing in the late 1890s when the number of Xs on the label represented the quality of the beer. More Xs, better beer.
They couldn’t fit enough Xs onto the ice-cold cans being thrown around the Queensland dressing-room after their shock 16-10 win over NSW in the State of Origin opener at Accor Stadium earlier this month.
Large yellow eskies were placed around the room with players, coaches, officials — even reporters — huddled around them like campfires on a cold night.
One esky was stationed in the middle of a circle of chairs where exhausted but jubilant players sat as they traded war stories after going one-up in the series, each of them pouring Golden Gatorades down their throats with furious abandon.
Queensland hero Cameron MunsterCredit:Getty Images
The last to arrive to the circle was Cameron Munster, who had been busy with interviews after being named man of the match.
He plopped down next to Storm teammate Felise Kaufusi, who promptly waved a XXXX under his nose.
To most people, and probably a laconic soul like Munster himself, it was nothing more than a joke. To anyone who has wrestled with the harsh realities of addiction, it was like passing his teammate a live hand grenade.
Spend enough time in a rehab, or a 12-step meeting, and you’ll hear a familiar refrain: “If you hang around the barbershop long enough, sooner or later, you’re going to get a haircut.”
But what if the barbershop is right there where you work, after every match, after every victory, waiting for you to take a seat? In rugby league, the sweet taste of victory is usually the same as the sweet taste of the sponsor’s beer.
Instead of getting the haircut, Munster fended the XXXX away like it was a Blues defender. He did something similar when Maroons great and trainer Allan Langer approached him to say he was missing his “little drinking buddy”.
Munster’s done with haircuts. Doesn’t need them nor want them, as Storm coach Craig Bellamy has seen.
“He tells me, and he doesn’t usually bullshit to me, that he’s not missing alcohol,” Bellamy says. “If someone had said three years ago that he wouldn’t be missing it, I wouldn’t have believed them. When we’ve had a few beers after Storm games, or the next day when we get together, it’s the normal Cameron but without a beer in his hand, just a soft drink. He’s not bullshitting me. He’s very OK with not having a drink.”
Munster’s very public battle with an alcohol and gambling addiction, which led to treatment in a Brisbane rehab last year following the so-called “white powder scandal”, has become a punchline for former players and commentators.
Cameron Munster and Brandon Smith in a Queensland hotel room with white powder on the table
His success, climaxing with his performance in Origin I, fits snugly into the familiar shoebox of rugby league redemption, but the truth is he’s an unlikely poster boy for recovery. Or, to put it crudely, sorting out one’s shit.
“I’m real proud of him,” Bellamy continues. “Early into the year, I might have been sceptical about him keeping it up. But now I’d be surprised if he had a relapse.”
For as long as anyone can remember, Munster lived his life like he played his football: spontaneous and full of risks. He had two personas and even had labels for them. When things were going well, he referred to himself as “Munny”. When they weren’t, it was “Munsie”.
After inspiring the Maroons to victory in the Origin decider in 2020, Munny and some of his teammates zeroed in on Byron Bay for celebrations.
Two days after the match, hooker Harry Grant was being interviewed on Matty Johns’ show Morning Glory on SEN Radio when he handed the phone to Munster.
Johns’ son Cooper, who plays at the Storm, was in the studio and asked Munster to explain what goes through his mind when he’s playing.
“You know when a monkey is clapping those little … what do you call them?” Munster said.
“Yeah cymbals. That’s how I’m thinking. That’s me to a ‘T’. There’s not much to me, as you would know, Coops. Run hard, tackle hard, kick, get to the set position, you know what I do.”
Those at the Storm see it every day.
As the players walk on the field for a training session, the chatter will start about which teammate will be shown up by Munster when he runs at the line, steps, jinks and snaps the ankles of defenders before slicing through.
Later, in the video room, they’ll watch the session again with coaching staff pointing out the defensive errors that allowed Munster to make certain players look like fools. You suspect the Blues have done something similar this week, dissecting his break from halfway early in the second half that swung momentum the Maroons’ way in game one.
To suggest Munster merely plays what’s in front of him, that it’s all down to the percussionist monkey in his head, is simplistic.
Billy Slater, his Queensland coach and former Storm teammate, laughs at the notion of Munster not putting much thought into how he plays.
“Don’t be fooled,” Slater says chuckling away. “Don’t be fooled about a couple of things. The perception is he only plays what he sees. There are situations on the field you look at and go, ‘Wow, that was just an opportunity and he took it’. Don’t get me wrong: he’s that sort of player. If something happens, he can react with the best of them. But he knows the game really well, he cares about his footy. He’s not just a loose guy who goes out and plays. You can’t be a consistent footballer doing that. You need some structure and preparation to your performance. So be careful about the perception: he has care for his football.”
Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga puts it this way: “You can’t play on instinct if you don’t have a high footy IQ so you can make the right decisions. He’s always had that ability but he was a bit wishy-washy. Now, he’s in the game all the time.”
In his two decades at the Storm, Bellamy has enforced a hard rule about trick plays: “If you haven’t done it at training, don’t try it in a game”.
Cameron Munster takes a selfie with a fan after the Maroons won game one.Credit:Getty
“There are a couple of players who have been exceptions to that,” he says. “Billy was one, Munster the other. His strength is his instinct, but he plays up to that, too. There’s a lot of footy sense in that head. A lot of footy common-sense too. More than people think.”
Before the 2017 season, Bellamy dispatched Munster and Slater to Sydney’s northern beaches for some one-on-one training with Matty Johns.
Munster had announced his arrival in the NRL the year before filling in at fullback for Slater, who had been sidelined for eight months with a second shoulder reconstruction. Fullback was all he knew and he was deeply concerned about moving into the No.6 jumper.
“Well, he didn’t have much choice,” Slater says, again chuckling. “There was only one spot at the back there.”
At the first session, Slater and Munster took it in turns with simple passing drills, throwing balls from left to right to Johns, who was at centre.
Munster’s first ball landed at Johns’ feet. The second hit him in the head.
“It was a big change,” Slater recalls. “It’s a totally different position. There are some similarities in attack, but it was confronting for him.”
Munster had too much ability for it not to work, going on to win premierships, Origins for Queensland and World Cups for Australia.
“He’s one of those guys who you could play anywhere,” Slater says. “You could put No.13 on his back and play him through the middle. The great thing about Cameron is he’s a physical player as well. That’s the concern when shifting players around, especially from fullback, where you can stay out of the continual contact. He’s starting to explore the field more now. When he first went there [to five-eighth], it was very much the stock standard, ‘stay on your side, let the fullback roam’. Now he’s exploring the other side. Whenever he’s around the football, something happens.”
With eyes wide open and cymbals clashing in his head, Munster will walk onto Optus Stadium on Perth on Sunday evening as the best player in the world. You can’t add enough Xs to the way he’s playing.
In rehab, they often talk about “the gifts of recovery”; the positive gains in your life that only come with sobriety and continually working on yourself.
For Munster, that just isn’t an Origin series win or even playing well. The real gifts, according to Bellamy, are his partner Bianca and young son Jackson.
“He didn’t have to do this for his footy,” he says. “He was still going to be playing first grade and there would’ve been people wanting him to play in their team somewhere. But he’s got other reasons to stay off the grog – because he’s got more to lose than footy.”
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