“It’s come back,” the 67-year-old says bluntly. “This is the third time so I’m a little more worried. The problem is it’s come back as a different sort of lymphoma. In December, I had a PET scan and it came up as a 10cm lymphoma across my adrenal gland as a B-cell, which they’ve never seen in Australia before. I’m having a stem-cell transplant on April 19. I’ve got a donor from overseas, which is great. They’ll shut down my whole immune system, they’ll poison it all out, then they’ll put his immune system in and hopefully his stem cells will take over for me. Then I’m in God’s hands. But I’m a realist, mate: it’s blood cancer.”
News of Mulholland’s condition will be concerning for a lot of people. In a game increasingly over-run by lawyers, academics and career sporting administrators, Mulholland is a true rugby league person. It’s hard to find a person who will say a bad word about him.
His coaching resume starts with 19 years at St Gregory’s College, coaching future NRL coaches such as Trent Robinson, Mick Potter, Trent Barrett, Jason Taylor and Daniel Anderson.
He coached the Western Reds in their formative years, was on the Panthers’ coaching staff when they won the 2003 premiership, and then bounced from the Bulldogs to Newcastle to St George Illawarra as recruitment manager before landing six years ago at the Raiders.
“People talk about the Bulldogs being the family club,” he says. “This is the family club. The support from the Raiders is keeping me alive.”
On Monday morning, as Mulholland showed me around the Raiders’ new centre of excellence, every player came up and pumped his hand as soon as they spotted him.
The Raiders failed last year to avenge their grand final loss to the Roosters, succumbing to premiers Melbourne in the preliminary final, but it was their greatest performance in years when you consider the injuries to so many key players.
Mulholland has every right to take some of the credit, given how many young players identified by his discerning eyes were used. He deflects any praise to coach Ricky Stuart.
“We had five starters from the grand final team who didn’t play most of last season,” Mulholland says. “Rick got confidence out of those kids through the scrimmages at training. The intensity at training meant they were ready to play. That’s the type of club we have here now. When I first got here, it was hard to get people to Canberra. Now, they’re knocking down my door.”
Indeed, players like Ryan James knocked back the Roosters, no less, to join the Raiders on less money. Albert Hopoate is coming off two ACLs but promises big things.
Mulholland’s earliest lesson when identifying talent came from Warren Ryan.
“Look who’s on the TV screen first,” Ryan advised. “Then watch them at the game and see what they do when they’re not in the picture; what they’re doing off the ball.”
Over the years, Mulholland’s learned to work in with the coach.
“Rick is big on leg speed,” he says. “Wayne [Bennett] was more about character.”
His discerning eye has unearthed generations of talent, including those who were unwanted. Players like Dale Finucane, Josh Jackson, Adam Elliott, Tim Lafai and Lachlan Fitzgibbon.
“You’ve got to believe in kids,” he says.
Even if they sometimes break your heart.
He convinced former All Black Craig Innes to join the Western Reds, only for Innes to turn his back on him to join Bob Fulton at Manly. “Because he’s a better coach,” was Innes’ sobering remark.
Then there’s Russell Packer, who Mulholland visited in jail for a year before Mulholland convinced the NRL to allow him to rejoin the game.
When Packer started talking to the Wests Tigers two seasons later, Mulholland tried to advise his family about the benefits of staying at the Dragons. Packer accused him of meddling.
“That’s the biggest heartbreak I’ve had in this game,” Mulholland says. “Just that complete antipathy he showed towards me. I had his best interests at heart.”
Because that’s the type of person Mulholland is. Sure, he’s worried about the Raiders but he also cares about the game. He believes it’s time for the NRL to seriously explore a rookie draft.
“The game is ready for it,” he says. “We’ve changed our ownership models. Prior to 1994, leagues clubs basically funded the game. The clubs, state leagues and schools developed players. Now, with private ownership models, clubs are mostly concerned about the bottom line. We have an inherent right to produce talent for the game, not just our own club.”
That attitude is probably why he’s been so well supported by the rugby league community over the last three years.
People often talk about Mulholland’s ability to notice the smallest of attributes, good or bad, in a young player. What they probably don’t know is how he trawls through Facebook, looking for clues into the kid he’s about to sign.
A mate suggested he post about his own condition and he was stunned with the response. More than 2500 people wrote messages, stretching back to kids he’d taught at school.
“I’m lucky, mate,” Mulholland says. “I’ve had a great life. Great family, great club support. I see blokes in the cancer ward who are young, just starting off in life, and it brings me back to reality. I’m lucky because I’ve got people standing by me. I love my job more than ever now. It’s given me another lease on life. You can be morbid about what you’ve got, what you’re facing. My future is doubtful – but I’m not about to roll over.”
Message in a muddle
You would think, by now, the NRL would know how to deal with off-field indiscretions. Heaven knows it’s had enough practice.
Instead, the game decided to rub Dragons five-eighth Corey Norman out for one match, and fine him, for defending himself and his mate James Segeyaro in a streetfight they didn’t start.
The NRL says Norman had the opportunity to walk away from the incident, despite the fact he was king-hit at the start of the melee.
I’m not sure how many streetfights you’ve been in, but from my experience you don’t turn your back and walk away from a pack of drunken men, leaving your good mate – who has been racially abused, incidentally – to fend for himself.
Can you imagine what people would think of Norman if he did walk away in those circumstances?
As we’ve written in this space before, the incident happened early in the night after the pair had been out with their respective partners. They hadn’t put themselves in a dangerous situation. The dangerous situation found them.
What hurt Norman’s case, though, is the pre-emptive statement his business YKTR put out on its social media platforms soon after the incident before speaking to the police and the NRL.
That statement didn’t entirely line up with what was depicted in the CCTV footage, including claims that a knife was pulled on them.
There’s controlling the message and then there’s muddying the waters. In this case, it did more harm than good.
“Of course, it hurts. I’m a human being like anybody else. I have emotions.” – Can someone please give Novak Djokovic – who won his ninth Australian Open title – a hug?
The breaking news on Thursday morning that BrisVegas is in the box-seat to host the 2032 Olympic Games was tremendous to hear. No word yet on whether the border will be open for NSW residents when the games roll around.
Devastating news about Tiger Woods, who broke both legs and badly so after he rolled his sponsored car in suburban Los Angeles. Golf is the last thing on his mind but let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of him strolling the fairways.
It’s a big weekend for …
The Waratahs, who come up against the Brumbies in Canberra on Saturday after getting thumped by the Reds in their opening Super Rugby AU match last weekend.
It’s an even bigger weekend for …
Joseph Suaalii, who will line up for North Sydney against Canberra in a reserve grade trial at Seiffert Oval on Saturday. It’s his first match against the big boys. “Welcome to first grade, son. I mean, reserve grade”.
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Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.