‘He’s got more to lose than football’: how Cameron Munster saved himself

To most people, and probably to a laconic soul like Munster himself, it was nothing more than a joke. For anyone who has struggled with the harsh realities of addiction, it was like giving his teammate a live hand grenade.

Spend enough time in rehab, or a 12-step meeting, and you’ll hear a familiar refrain, “If you hang around the barber shop long enough, sooner or later you’ll get a haircut.”

But what if the barbershop is right where you work, after every match, after every win, 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 warded off the XXXX as if it were a Blues defender. He did something similar when Maroons great and trainer Allan Langer approached him to say he missed his “drinking buddy”.

Munster has finished cutting. Doesn’t need them and doesn’t want them, as Storm coach Craig Bellamy has seen.

“He tells me, and he doesn’t usually make fun of me, that he doesn’t miss alcohol,” Bellamy says. “If someone had said three years ago that they wouldn’t miss it, I wouldn’t have believed them. When we’ve had a few beers after Storm games, or the next day when we’re together, it’s the normal Cameron, but without a beer in his hand, just a soda. He’s not kidding me. He’s fine with not having a drink.”

Munster’s very public battle with an alcohol and gambling addiction, which led to treatment in a Brisbane rehab facility last year the so-called “white powder scandal”has become a punch line for former players and commentators.

Cameron Munster was filmed with Storm teammates Brandon Smith and Chris Lewis in a Queensland hotel room with white powder on the table

His success, culminating in his appearance in Origin I, fits right into the familiar shoebox of rugby league redemption, but the truth is he’s an unlikely poster boy for recovery. Or, to put it roughly, cleaning up his shit.

“I’m really proud of him,” Bellamy continues. “At the beginning of the year I was perhaps skeptical if he would last. But now I’d be surprised if he relapsed.”

For as long as anyone can remember, Munster lived his life the way he played his football: spontaneous and full of risks. He had two personas and even had labels for them. When things went well, he called himself “Munny”. When they weren’t, it was “Munsie”.

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After inspiring the Maroons to victory in the Origin Decider in 2020Munny and some of his teammates went to Byron Bay for celebrations.

Two days after the match, whore Harry Grant was interviewed on Matty Johns’ show morning glory on SEN Radio when he handed the phone over to Munster.

Johns’ son Cooper, who plays with the Storm, was in the studio and asked Munster to explain what goes through his mind when he plays.

“You know when a monkey slaps that little one…what do you call them?” said Munster.

cymbals?

“Yes, cymbals. That’s what I’m thinking. That’s me against a ‘T’. Not much for me, as you would know, Coops. Run hard, tackle hard, kick, get to the set position, you know what I’m doing.”

Those at the Storm see it every day.

As the players walk across the field for a training session, chatter begins about which teammate will be shown by Munster as he rushes to the line, steps, neighs and snaps defenders’ ankles before cutting through.

Later, in the video room, they will rewatch the session as the coaching staff points out the defensive mistakes that allowed Munster to make certain players look like fools. You suspect the Blues did something similar this week, dissecting his midway break in the second half that kicked the Maroons up a notch in the first game.

To suggest that Munster is only playing what is in front of him, that it all comes down to the percussionist monkey in his head, is simplistic.

Billy Slater, his Queensland coach and former Storm team-mate, laughs at the idea that Munster doesn’t pay much attention to how he plays.

“Don’t be fooled,” Slater says with a chuckle. “Don’t be fooled by a few things. The perception is that he only plays what he sees. There are situations on the pitch where you look at it and think, ‘Wow, that was just an opportunity and he grabbed it’. Don’t get me wrong, he’s such a player. If something happens, he is the best person to respond. But he knows the game very well, he cares about his football. He’s not just some riotous guy who goes out and plays. You cannot be a consistent footballer. You need some structure and preparation for your performance. So beware of the perception: he cares 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 little flimsy. Now he’s in the game all the time.”

In his two decades with the Storm, Bellamy enforced a hard rule about trick plays: “If you didn’t do it in training, don’t try it in a game”.

Cameron Munster takes a selfie with a fan after the Maroons win game one.

Cameron Munster takes a selfie with a fan after the Maroons win game one.Credit:Getty

“There are a few players who were an exception to that,” he says. “Billy was one, Munster the other. His strength is his instinct, but he also plays on it. There’s a lot of feeling in that head. Lots of footy common sense too. More than people think.”

For the 2017 season, Bellamy sent Munster and Slater to Sydney’s Northern Beaches for a one-on-one training session 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 very concerned about moving to the number 6 jumper.

“Well, he didn’t have much of a choice,” Slater says, chuckling again. “There was only one spot in the back.”

During the first session, Slater and Munster took turns with simple passing drills, throwing balls from left to right to Johns, who was in the middle.

Munster’s first ball landed at Johns’ feet. The second hit him on the head.

“It was a big change,” Slater recalls. “It’s a very different position. There are some similarities in attack, but it was confrontational for him.”

Munster had too many opportunities not to work, and went on to win premierships, Origins for Queensland and World Cups for Australia.

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“He’s one of those guys you could play anywhere,” Slater says. “You could put number 13 on his back and play him down the middle. The great thing about Cameron is that he’s also a physical player. That’s the concern when moving players, especially from fullback, where you get out of the constant can stay in touch. He is starting to explore the field more now. When he first went there [to five-eighth], it was very much the standard, ‘stay by your side, let the fullback walk around’. Now he’s exploring the other side. Whenever he’s near the football, something happens.”

With eyes wide open and cymbals crashing into his head, Munster will walk into the Optus Stadium in Perth on Sunday night as the best player in the world. You can’t add enough X’s to the way he plays.

In rehab they often talk about ‘the gifts of recovery’; the positive benefits in your life that only come with sobriety and constantly working on yourself.

For Munster, that’s just not an Origin series that wins or even plays well. The real gifts, according to Bellamy, are his partner Bianca and young son Jackson.

“He didn’t have to do this for his football,” he says. “He would still play in the first division and there would have been people who wanted to play him somewhere in their team. But he has other reasons for staying off the grog – because he has more to lose than football.”

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