HE is as Australian as they come but Mal Meninga’s love affair with English grounds goes back more than 30 years to when their current head coach was a fearsome centre playing here for the 1982 Kangaroos.
That side was so good that their moniker, of course, became The Invincibles given they won all 22 matches, a feat previously never achieved since the Green and Golds tours began back in 1908.
With such greats as Wally Lewis, Wayne Pearce and Brett Kenny, it was a formidable outfit, the 22-year-old centre Meninga enhancing his own growing reputation with 10 tries and 68 goals from his 14 matches during the trip.
With their glorious football, they left fans in awe wherever they appeared. However, ruthless Australia also repeated the feat four years later – the ‘86 side were instead known as ‘The Unbeatables’ – with the giant, marauding Meninga once more to the fore while, in 1990, he advanced this time to captain his country to another Ashes success over Great Britain.
At least then, the hosts came close to ending the ‘Roos domination, memorably winning the opening Wembley Test and looking on course for a deciding victory at Old Trafford.
But ‘Big Mal’ suddenly appeared in support of Ricky Stuart’s break at the death to snatch the game, level the series and then – when scoring for the third successive Test – sealing another success with a 14-0 win in the final match at Elland Road.
In 1994, he became the only player to ever make four Kangaroos tours and also captain two, rounding off his brilliant Test career – 21 tries from a record-breaking 46 caps – with another series success over Great Britain.
Yet some of the most precious memories of life here for ‘man-mountain’ Meninga, who hopes to repeat such triumphs when the Kangaroos side he now coaches face holders New Zealand in tomorrow’s Ladbrokes Four Nations final, are from his stunning solitary campaign in the English game.
He played for St Helens in 1984-85, the storming runs, electric pace and hard-hitting defence that had made him one of the world greats, making him an instant hero on Merseyside, too.
Meninga helped them win the Premiership and Lancashire Cup, his only regret that he was unable to return a second time.
Speaking exclusively to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “I had the opportunity to go to Wigan and a few other clubs, including Leeds.
“But Saints appealed to me with the way they conducted themselves. When you look at the English competition Saints always had a rich history and it was a privilege and honour to play for them.
“I do love it over here. It really disappoints me that I never had another opportunity to come whether through broken arms (1987 and 1988) or towards the back end of my career when I’d probably just had too much footy.
“But I love the grounds, I love the crowds, I enjoyed my time with the players…
“It’s a different brand of rugby league here. When I played they liked to throw the ball around, an attacking style, and you talk to any rugby league player that is what you like.
“There wasn’t a great emphasis on defence!
“I was lucky enough to play with a really great team, too, and had a fair bit of success.”
Being a Liverpool fan – Meninga went to watch them while at Saints with fellow Australian Craig Johnston, his favourite player – he is looking forward to experiencing Anfield tomorrow as it hosts its maiden Test match.
“It’s such an iconic place and it’s brilliant to be involved here,” said the 56-year-old, appointed Kangaroos chief in December to replace Tim Sheens, now in charge at Hull KR.
“Of all the grounds here, Knowsley Road was obviously my favourite.
“But on the old Kangaroos tour days we’d play at Central Park, then over in Hull at the Boulevard or Craven Park, while Headingley was great, too.
“There’s all those great ovals that are synonymous with rugby league in the Yorkshire and Lancashire regions as well as up in Cumbria, too; I played in Workington, Whitehaven and remember playing at Barrow once.
“It was a bit chilly up there but we got through it.
“There’s good rugby league people here, who were very appreciative of the way the Kangaroos played.”
His St Helens season coincided with the same campaign as Kangaroos team-mates Kenny, with Wigan, and Peter Sterling, for Hull, playing in the famous 1985 Challenge Cup final.
“ I was actually at Wembley watching that game,” said the former Canberra Raiders and Queensland State of Origin star.
“It was probably the only game I actually loved watching.
“I always wanted to play there but there was a really good atmosphere and ‘Chicka’ (John) Ferguson made a difference that day.
“He scored that try when he beat Dane O’Hara in about a metre of space.
“Hull had all the Kiwis playing for them as well as Sterlo – Gary Kemble, O’Hara… it was just a great era. 100,000 people there. Awesome.”
Australia reached tomorrow’s final having comfortably swept England aside last Sunday, prompting all the usual soul-searching about the state of the hosts’ game as it continues to fall short.
“I don’t think the English game has fallen behind,” said Meninga, who has confidence in Wayne Bennett, his fellow countryman and early mentor, even if he did accuse England’s new coach of “undermining” him and wanting his job last month.
“The quality of English players is good and I agree with Wayne; it’s self-belief (lacking).
“During the tough times, having that self-belief you can match it with the best in the world.
“They have an awesome forward pack who excel at NRL level so it’s just a matter of combining the two and I think Wayne’s the man to do that.
“As a mentor and as a coach he can bring the English team together and I believe they can win on the international stage.”
There has been much talk of England’s uncertainty in the half-backs, too, Bennett using three different pairings in as many Four Nations games and having relatively few more opportunities before next autumn’s 2017 World Cup
Former policeman Meninga added: “I think it is important it is settled as it makes a difference in a team – a bit of cohesion and getting combinations right.
“I’d imagine he’ll have something up his sleeve with his halves in particular around education; keeping a really close eye on them through the year with their clubs and organising some trial matches.
“He’s a smart man.
“He’ll have those guys humming at the back end of next year.”