Rugby League

How a wake-up call from Phil Gould helped save Jamie Soward's career at Penrith Panthers

Jamie Soward's life had spiralled so far out of control, rugby league had become irrelevant.

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South’s devastating win over the Roosters, the ongoing problem of low tackles and Penrith celebrate their 50th year in the NRL.

The inevitable conversation with Phil Gould that followed was one that left him even more dejected, but one that forced him to rethink where his life was headed.

Soward's marriage had just ended at the start of last year. On the field his body was failing. Off the field he was questioning his future in the game.

"It just became a never-ending cycle of this rut I was in," Soward told Fairfax Media.

Training sessions were followed by lonely nights inside his new Penrith home, counting down the hours until he had to do it all again.

"I would just be waiting for the next day to roll around," he said.

Given the emotional turmoil he has had to endure throughout a highly scrutinised career, one would understand if the fire had burnt out prior to its expiry date.

Reinvigorated: Panthers veteran Jamie Soward is loving life and playing good football again.
Reinvigorated: Panthers veteran Jamie Soward is loving life and playing good football again. Photo: Wolter Peeters

But it was at this point Gould intervened with an ultimatum.

Get your shit together or go - that was the message in what was a frank assessment.

Happy days: Jamie Soward.
Happy days: Jamie Soward. Photo: Wolter Peeters

"I was pretty devastated at the time," Soward said.

"But I probably knew it was coming. I didn't represent myself the best last year and what he demanded of a senior player. After we spoke I actually felt relieved, if that makes sense? I wasn't the same person any more. Gus could see that and asked me if I really wanted to be here.

"But it was a matter of whether I wanted to be here because I needed a job or because I wanted to win a comp. That commitment has never wavered - yes it's been questioned - but it's never wavered. I felt relieved that he addressed it and it gave me time to think about it. I came back and told him I wanted to be here and he just said 'good, now get your shit together'."​

Unfinished business. The two words that regularly came up in conversation when Soward confided in his closest friends about whether he should hang up the boots.

A premiership, State of Origin series and 200-odd NRL games would have left a sweet taste if he decided to ride off into the sunset.

But his passion for the sport was reinvigorated in the off-season when he met his now-girlfriend, Madi, who he credits for helping him rediscover his love for the game that has provided him with the ultimate highs and lows.​

"Stuff happens in life that you can't control and you need to be able to deal with things. When that change happened in my personal life, I wasn't playing great, I wasn't enjoying my footy and I wasn't enjoying my life.

"But with my girlfriend we've been able to build a lifestyle for ourselves that we're really happy with and have a great balance in our life that we share. I think you've seen over the last three or four months how happy I've been. I've started to enjoy coming back to training. 

"So I recommitted to myself first, then I made a commitment to the club. She was a massive part of that. I'm not sitting around waiting for training to come around, I'm getting out and enjoying life. I've come out the other side of a pretty rough patch in my life and realised how lucky I am to be able to still do what I love and have someone who cares about me and driving me to succeed, not just in footy but in life."

October 3, 2004 - that was the day Soward catapulted himself into the spotlight with a 40-metre premiership-winning field goal in extra time playing for the Sydney Roosters in the Jersey Flegg grand final against Cronulla.

Almost 12 years on he reflects on the emotional journey that followed.

"If I could offer myself advice knowing what I know now, I'd tell myself 'Not everything goes to plan so learn to roll with the punches'."

And he has copped punches.

A constant battle with the media throughout his career left him scarred and jaded by the public scrutiny that followed.

If he could do it all again, there's nothing he would change on the field.

But off it he has some regrets.

"It was me not giving enough respect to the media - what they were doing was their job," Soward said.

"I was uptight about a lot of things and very defensive because that was my character. But now I think they've shown me the respect so I've been able to enjoy it and get the respect I feel I deserve rather than feeling that I deserved after not doing very much in the game.

"I'm an easy target. I put myself out there and say what I feel and back it up. That's why I feel like I'll have a good career in the media. I have my opinion and I'm happy to back it up and not shy away from it. I say it how I see it. If people don't like that, it's fine. While people might not like what I have to say all the time, I think they respect me now."

Soward still has another year to run on his contract after this season.

But with Matt Moylan and Te Maire Martin looking like the future No.6 and 7 of the club, questions will again be asked of his future in a few months' time.

But as far as he's concerned, this is not the beginning of the end.

"Regardless of how the season pans out, there will be a conversation about whether I should be here next year," Soward said.

"We have some young talent coming through but as far as I'm concerned I see myself coming back next year."

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