Back in town … Todd Carney with Country Origin coach Laurie Daley at Kippax Park yesterday. Carney, now with the Sharks, appears to be on the brink of his NSW debut after a series of false starts. Photo: Kate Geraghty
TODD CARNEY was back in familiar territory yesterday. Not simply in a Country Origin camp, which he was a member of in 2008 and 2010, but at Kippax Lake at Moore Park, a drop punt or two from the offices of the Sydney Roosters and his former home ground.
That the 25-year-old has reached this representative level only in even years is indicative of the roller-coaster his life has been on. In January of last year, he was set to make a State of Origin debut, having been invited to a meeting of eight "core players" around whom NSW coach Ricky Stuart wanted to build a challenge to Queensland.
Carney has not seen Stuart since that summit in Cronulla more than 20 months ago. History will record he never made that Origin breakthrough, and countless words have been written explaining why. Yet here he is, back again with a resurgent Cronulla and on the precipice, surely, of returning to Stuart's speed dial.
"I haven't spoken to Sticky [Stuart] since the meeting that we had in Cronulla," Carney said. "Hopefully I do get the opportunity to be coached by him. But I haven't gone to any steps to find out because I didn't know what the feeling was there. It's never too late, hopefully I get that opportunity."
Increasingly, this year's Origin series looks like being Carney's time. He said he was driven this season, in part, by his snubbing from the extended Emerging Blues squad selected at the start of the year and from which, theoretically, Stuart's Origin side is plucked. At the same time, Carney acknowledged he was partly to blame for being overlooked.
"That was a bit of a drive for me, to not get picked," he said. "But there were a few things in my area that I stuffed up. At that stage, I probably wasn't in the plans."
Carney appears to have his life back on track. Certainly his career is. He swapped Coogee for Cronulla at the request of Sharks coach Shane Flanagan and says he is revelling in the latitude granted by his new club.
There are obvious obligations to meet, but Carney's excellent performance against Parramatta on Sunday means there can be no question about his commitment.
"When I signed at the Sharks, that was one of the things Flanno wanted me to do was move to Cronulla, and I've been living there since November," he said. "It reminds me a bit of Canberra, that's the feel of it at the moment with the group of guys. I enjoy it there, one of my good mates lives out there … and my aunty is out at Cronulla so it's really good.
"We train hard, play hard and … have our own free time and the club has been good in that area. I think that's the key to it. And I guess youse are off my back … "
Carney says this last line with a smile but there is clearly a section of the media focus on him that still rubs the wrong way. He resolved to cop the attention when he had erred but does not understand why every appearance he makes at the Clovelly Hotel or Northies should be gossip column fodder. "It still gets to me now that someone has to publish every time I go somewhere," he said. "Half the 'spotted' things … some places I'm not even there.
"I don't really read too much into it, it's more people that ring me that I think it bothers more … family and friends that ring me up. But that's life. I deal with it."
Back on Roosters turf yesterday, it was easy to assume Carney cut all ties with a club that ultimately sacked him, rightly or wrongly. Whatever his feelings for the administration, however, the bond with the players he reached the 2010 grand final with has not diminished; principally with Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce, who is in City colours this week. Carney hopes to reunite with Pearce at Origin level, despite the criticism his old friend is copping for his club form.
"I actually catch up with most of the boys once a week, I try to have dinner with them once a week. That's one thing I did build here at the club, was a lot of good friendships," he said.
"I do catch up with Mitch and I talk to him all the time. I bounce things off him. He gets a little bit pissed off with [the criticism] but, knowing Mitch, he'll bounce back. I don't think his form has been that bad.
"He rang me up the other day and he was pretty excited about if the opportunity comes [for NSW]. We're good mates and we formed a good combination together so, hopefully, we get that chance."