Heroes of Yesterday – Tony Cosatto
Where did you grow up?
In the Ashcroft area.
What was your childhood like?
I reckon I had the best childhood ever. I lived in Housing Commission flats in the same block that Brad Fittler lived. Ashcroft High School was directly behind us and I had the biggest backyard, I could just jump the fence and there I was, on the footy field, the monkey bars or the cricket pitch.
I am from an Italian family and have a sister, Maria who is four years older than me.
Did you collect footy cards as a kid?
No, I didn’t and that was probably because we didn’t have a lot of money, those sorts of luxuries I never had. I didn’t get pocket money, and I wouldn’t get a card unless someone gave me one.
Mum and Dad were immigrants. They didn’t speak a lot of English, they could understand a little but couldn’t have a full-on conversation.
What was your first football experience?
In my mind’s eye I was playing footy at lunchtime in Primary School.
I played for Green Valley that won the competition six years in a row and the Coca-Cola Knockout six years in a row. It all started with my friend from school David Rowles and he lived next door to the coach. We used to play on the grass there when I was in about Grade two or three and the coach came over and asked me if I would like to play Rugby League. I said you would have to ask my Mum and Dad.
I played for Green Valley for eight years and then went and played for Ashcroft.
Who were your football heroes as a kid?
It would have been Ray Price, Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe, all those guys.
Did you play representative football as you were growing up?
As a kid I played for the Australian Schoolboys side in 1985 against New Zealand. We played two Tests that year, one in Gosford and one in Tweed Heads. We won both of those games.
I also played up an age for State of Origin Under 18’s in 1985 with blokes like Mark Geyer. The following year I played up a grade again in the Under 19’s. In 1987 I captained the Under 19’s NSW State of Origin side.
How did your parents feel when you were selected to play for Australia?
It was a proud moment for them, but they probably didn’t realise how important it was. It wasn’t until I was TV playing for Parramatta as an 18-year-old that they realised the level.
My father wasn’t right into it but that match in Gosford playing for Australia was one of the games that he came and watched me play.
Did your parents want you to play Soccer instead of Rugby League?
My Dad probably did, being Italian. I google my father’s name and he played in the very first RPIA side in 1954. I have a picture of this as well in a scrapbook. My Dad was a good soccer player, but he was a labourer and he spent his time working and on Saturdays he enjoyed going to the TAB. So, he didn’t come to too many games.
I had a wonderful coach in Jimmy Price who picked me up and took me to the games. He was also the coach for an older side and I enjoyed that because I would play my game and then be ball boy for every game after that. Would spend all day out and it was just a fantastic childhood.
What got you to Parramatta?
I think I got to Parramatta through my Schoolboy representative games and my Ashcroft High playing days who were a very strong and successful team. In 1985 we won the Forbes knockout, the University Shield, won the Commonwealth Bank Cup and got ripped off in the State Cup.
Who were some of your team mates from those Ashcroft days?
There was Tony Fahey who went on to Grade for Wests. There was Jimmy Bell who unfortunately passed away from a heart attack at the age of 34. He played for Penrith and the Roosters. David Rowles who played for Parramatta and the Tigers. Paul Smith who was successful and won a Grand Final with Penrith.
How was your first experience of playing Reserve Grade for Parramatta in 1986?
It was against St George when Parramatta Stadium opened, I got Man of the Match. We won all three grades that day.
If I could ever get a copy of that game, I would love that. I remember putting Graeme Atkins away for a try down the blind side then scoring one myself. I came up against Brian Johnston, a good player, a regular sort of First Grade player.
Funny thing is when I was growing up I never bought Rugby League Week and unless I saw the players on TV and they were regular First Grade players, they were the only ones I really knew.
I was always confident in my defence as a player, I played strong against him and I don’t think I did anything to disgrace myself at all in that hit out.
It was a TV game as well against Balmain on a Sunday afternoon. The Tigers were a competitive side with Wayne Pearce and Paul Sironen to name just a couple. It was exciting, awe inspiring and, I had an element of fear of losing the game for my beloved Parramatta.
I was on the wing for the injured Eric Grothe, a position I wasn’t used to. As a schoolboy for club, NSW and Australia I was a five-eight. One thing I wish I did more of and that is to speak up and say I want to play five-eight, but then you think we had Brett Kenny. Any opportunity you must play First Grade you take it, put it that way. I did play most of my Grade career at Wing and Centre, but that first year I did get to play five-eight a few times when Brett Kenny was out. I remember playing five-eight against the Roosters and Canterbury that year.
What did John Monie say to you leading up to that game, being your debut?
He didn’t say much to me before the game, but I do remember what he said after the game which wasn’t too encouraging. There was always a post Morten at Parramatta. Unless you had some sort of blinder there was always what you didn’t do right.
I didn’t find it encouraging at all to be 100% honest with you Daniel, being surrounded by all my hero’s and not spoken positively about the game, even though we won 24-6. Funnily enough, in that game. In that game, if the ball went out an extra pass, I score three tries, but as it worked out they didn’t need to pass, they scored one player inside, which is fine. It could have been a different story, but that’s life.
How was the culture at Parramatta, especially in 1986?
The culture was good. It was hard to break into it; those legends had been playing together and friends for five to six years and they had been very successful.
Who did you knock around with whilst playing with the Eels?
In that first year they knew me as a bit of a wild boy and my life changed a lot when I became a Christian. So instead of heading to the pub after a game, I was heading to Church, so I didn’t hang around with many of the players too much because of Church and I had my girlfriend at the time. So, before and after the games I went to Church because that is where I wanted to go, and I enjoyed going there.
How did your faith affect how you related to your team mates?
When we went on trips away I would still go out with the boys, but I wouldn’t be drinking.
I remember one time I was playing for the Roosters and we played Canberra in Perth in one of those promotional matches and after the game I asked if anyone wanted to come back to the room to play Scrabble and no one did. It was funny, the next morning big Craig Salvatori was a bit dusty, shaking his head he said, “I wish I had of stayed home with you Tony.”
Everyone was cool about it and I even had people asking me to pray before a game for different reasons.
Back in those days there was only a handful of us who didn’t drink. There was Glen Nissen, Brad Mackay and Ian Barkley and then Jason Stevens came along. There was a group called athletes in action that we were part of.
If you don’t mind me asking, what was the reason for turning your life around at such a young age?
Well, you ask me the question, I will tell you the answer.
My wife grew up in a Catholic home initially and her Mother was Catholic, and her Mum then became a born again Christian and she spoke to her daughter (My girlfriend at the time who later became my Wife), which she did follow in her Mothers footsteps. Then she went away from the faith, met me and we were going out for a year or so and one night she had a dream, a very vivid dream. It was a sign for people to go back to God, so she then spoke to me about my faith, and Jesus. I did have a genuine faith with Catholic parents and going to Church while growing up. At that time in my life I was womanising and drinking, and I basically went to Church and got a revelation. I just saw the light and the truth and believed in it and radically got saved and changed.
The Cameron Blair incident on the field, what do you remember about what happened?
It was a dramatic situation and the thing that made it more dramatic was it was televised on the ABC, it was live with no commercial breaks.
I don’t know if you can technically swallow your tongue as they were reporting the incident on TV. I think what Cameron Smith did by rolling me over and putting me in a position where if I was struggling to breathe, that position assisted. What Cameron Blair did was the heroic thing to try and see if I was OK, being an opposition player. It is the Australian way, in a life and death situation you try and look after your mate.
I think it was eight minutes until I was taken from the footy field.
It happened from a shoulder charge and if you ask me about what I think of shoulder charges in general, I am neither here, nor there. Personally, I found them hard to do, I didn’t have enough weight to really do it. I think the thing that should be banned is contact around the head. If you shoulder charge into someone’s chest or shoulder, then you should be allowed to do that every time. I reckon any mug can shoulder charge or throw a punch in someone’s head or face. If you think hitting someone in the head is tough, take up boxing. Rugby League I reckon hurt them as much as you can, but hurt them legally, from the head down. You try and hurt them to discourage them to put them off their game.
What made you move to Western Suburbs in 1990?
It probably goes back to my faith here. I just found with those four years at Parramatta, I just needed a fresh start. There were a few things, I felt that I wasn’t being mentally encouraged at Parramatta and I went for less money, so money wasn’t a motivation.
I prayed and asked where I should go and what should I do.
Initially I thought to myself I was going to go to Wests and then I had a meeting with Mick Cronin and Alan Overton who was my boss at the time when I was working at James Hardie’s and the Chairman of the Club. They offered me a little bit, more money to stay and I agreed to stay. I just didn’t feel comfortable after agreeing to stay, I hadn’t signed anything at this point.
I was coming out of the physio and I was thinking about what I should do and then a magpie flew past me, I know it sounds strange, and I thought, is that a sign that I should stick with my gut and go to the Magpie’s.
I went back and saw Alan Overton and told him “I think I am going to go to West’s”. I told him about the magpie flying past and he said to me “Cosatto, there is no bloody chance of an eel going past ya”. I said I know you are right there, but I took the courage and made the move to West’s.
How was your time at West’s from 1990 and 1991?
They were two good years where I got a lot of confidence and I played a lot of First Grade. I also went alright financially, even though the money wasn’t great initially, there was a good incentive package, which gave me a bit of a kick start.
Jason Taylor ended up coming there and he was our ball boy at school. They were all my mates, but same again you could say they were my work mates. I was close with them at training and playing football on the weekends but at other times I was heading back to my other life at the Church and connecting with that community.
In 1991 we made the Semi Finals, Warren Ryan brought over a few of his mates from Canterbury, Joe Thomas, Paul Langmack, Andrew Farrar, Graeme Wynn as well. I really enjoyed how Warren Ryan coached, I really flourished under his coaching. We trained super hard, very fit. We had set plays, but we were able to play what we saw as well. Intelligence with the structured play, like who to run at, why to run at them and what we are going to run down the blind side. Darren Britt was a good bloke.
We were beaten in the Semi Final against Canberra, I came off the bench in that game. We were up against guys like Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Gary Belcher, Chicka Ferguson (John Ferguson).
What made you switch to the Roosters in 1992?
Warren Ryan wanted to punt me and that was the year of the draft. Terry Hill fought it and it was known as a restriction of trade. So, Terry Hill came to West’s and they offered me peanuts.
I started to feel like football was becoming my god rather than going to Church because of the amount of time I was training, so I decided to give the game away at the ripe old age of 23.
The Roosters gave me a call halfway through the following season. They rang a couple of times, they had a few injuries at the time and I spoke to my Wife and Mother in Law about it. It is nice when you are wanted I thought too. They said well lets just pray about it anyway and funnily enough I got a phone call again the next day and I saw that as the green light.
I hadn’t trained all year, except for the week leading into my first game and that was in Reserve Grade and I went well. I was promoted into First Grade the following week against St George. Brian Smith is a smart coach, they just kicked at me all day. I was dropped after that game, not that I did anything bad, but I didn’t do anything flash either.
I had a conversation with Mark Murray after that and he said, “Sorry Tony, I haven’t had a chance to have a chat with you and how we put you down a grade”. I said that is OK, I was surprised I even got put up after not playing for six months. I don’t know how it came up in the conversation, but I mentioned that I wouldn’t mind playing a bit closer to the action if that was OK? The last three games for the Roosters in Reserve Grade I played lock and played well, and I was given a contract for the following year to play in that position and that’s where I played the season and I ended up getting the Third Player of the Year for the club. The Lock position suited me because I was a good defender and that year, in 1993, Rugby League Week ran a Tackler of the Week competition and I won one of those.
How did the culture differ from East to West?
I probably enjoyed it more because it wasn’t as intense. At Wests we trained hard for five days a week and played on the weekend, where at the Roosters we had Jack Gibson as coaching coordinator and he brought in training of 2-3 times a week. You mixed with the Under 23’s and Reserve Grade on the Tuesday doing the drills.
What are your Greatest Memories of playing Rugby League?
I suppose being graded at Parramatta, that would be my highlight as an 18-year-old.
I remember as a kid watching Parramatta on the TV, not at my house because I don’t even think we had a TV. I used to go to my mate’s place, David Rowles and watched the Parramatta Grand Finals of 1976 and 1978 at 8 and 9 years of age. I remember watching Ray Higgs, Johnny Peard and Neville Glover and those blokes run around.
Then playing Harold Matthews in 1982 and SG Ball in 1984 and being a Parramatta local and how great that side was.
So, going to play with my heroes was great but it was a negative too because I was, so awe struck. My main regret was holding back, I feared making a mistake. Don’t let fear get in the way, that is my life lesson from this.
Who was your most respected rival?
That’s a tough one. When they say who was the toughest or hardest it would be Mal Meninga I have his autograph on my chin here, these couple of stitches. It happened in that Roosters game in Perth in 1993, just from trying to get him down. I remember another game against Canberra and this time I was playing for Wests, down in Canberra on a cold, miserable day and I reckon they had 35,000 repeat sets of six. That’s what it felt like, always in the in-goal area and here we go again, drop it out. They beat us by about 34-0 and Warren Ryan really gave it to us. There was one tackle I was on his back, literally like a piggy back and he didn’t slow down one little bit.
Then you have the little blokes like Allan Langer and Kevin Walters, too quick and would jump around a lot.
Which was the best team you played against?
You can look at that Canterbury side from 1986, the Mortimer’s in the centre, Terry Lamb, Peter Tunks, David Gillespie, Paul Langmack.
When did you know it was time to give the game away?
After my last year at the Roosters I was offered some money and I had heard of players earning a fair bit more than what I was being offered, not necessarily at the Roosters, at other clubs. I thought I was worth more than that as I had played more First Grade than some of those players. My manager at the time said he would look after me and, in the end, he didn’t even contact the Roosters and the deal fell through and I didn’t pick up another contract.
I then had a chance to go to England and then that fear came in. There would have been a lot of changes, like not working for James Hardies. My wife was up for it, but we didn’t do it and I was only 25 years old at the time.
Then a chance came to play for the Western Reds in 1995 on a good contract and could have played with the likes of Mark Geyer and Brad Mackay. I didn’t take either contract up, I just faded away and retired. Sometimes I do shed a tear and think of what could have been.
What followed football?
I continued with my work, I loved James Hardies and the people in there and the customers.
Married and I have two children who are 19 and 17 today.
In 1998 when I was owner building a house I played the season with Asquith and I hadn’t done anything for five years and boy was that hard. After the first game I was exhausted. One of my favourite times then was when we put on a famous move where we all stop and look at the referee and someone fast comes and takes the ball out of my hands when the opposition stops. We scored under the posts every time we did it. We did the same move in First Grade for Wests against Balmain.
I love watching footy and playing touch footy, play corporate golf occasionally. I am still finishing off my house externally.
How has the game changed since your playing days?
The players are more professional. I think they try and go high a lot these days and the amount of times I have seen tries scored because the guy has tried to go high where it requires a low tackle. It is too blinkered when it comes to the defensive side of things.
I heard The Axe (Trevor Gillmeister) recently on AM talk back radio talking about tackling and he said they need to be taught to go low because of tries being scored from the player still running when someone has gone high, you need to chop their legs from under them. Even if it is a quick play the ball, you stop the try.
I don’t know what has happened with Man on Man and numbering up, that has changed.
It is just faster. It isn’t as tough. I think they should go back to trying to hurt them with defence with good solid hits and driving them back. The wrestling is coming into junior rugby league which I think is wrong.
When I say go low and hard I don’t mean go for the knees, I mean you smash them in the guts and the second and third guy wrap up the ball.
Did you keep a scrapbook?
I didn’t but my sister did, and my wife collected a few things and I never really looked at it. Funnily enough I looked at it the other day and I looked through the scrapbook. I read some of the articles, one was Peter Sterling and Steve Ella saying that I was the form player throughout the trials. They said great skill and ability and I wonder why didn’t I think that myself?
It sounds like confidence was a big thing in your career?
Yes, and I wish I had played with the same mindset I had during Schoolboy’s.
I can still remember those comments from my coach (John Monie) a couple of games into my career at Parramatta, in a room as big as this (Dan’s Cumberland Oval Bar) with all the Parra players. He went around the room and said Bert, you made 11 hit ups and 25 tackles, you missed a couple, you just must do this and this. Cosatto, the only thing you did was take a bomb. It isn’t his fault, it was up to me to put that behind me.
I would love to be involved in Rugby League and encourage young up and coming players.
What is your favourite restaurant?
Every Friday I go to a little dingy looking place called Temasek in Parramatta and I would have the lunchtime special Chicken Laksa. I usually go with a few guys in the industry with a bottle of wine.