CHRIS BARRETT June 09, 2012
Older, wiser … Todd Carney. Photo: Steve Christo
The NSW No. 6's first attack of nerves struck at the worst possible time, writes Chris Barrett.
IT WAS Todd Carney's friends, non-participants in the game's greatest showpiece, who first noticed it. Watching the coverage from Etihad Stadium in the 30 minutes before State of Origin I, they saw on their screens at home or in the pub that something wasn't right.
Carney, a habitual socialiser in the dressing room and with his long-awaited NSW debut approaching by the minute, had plonked himself on his backside and was barely uttering a word.
NSW coach Ricky Stuart this week attributed the five-eighth's aberrant entry to the Origin scene to nerves. Carney does not want to blame a sudden burst of pre-game anxiety - he says he simply played poorly in Melbourne - but is not arguing that he was beaten by the occasion.
Ordinarily, Carney says, he will mingle in the team room or beneath the eaves of the grandstand before the kick-off. Simply engaging with others seems to ward off the butterflies. But Wednesday, May 23, was different. Like a local priest flung behind the pulpit to address the Pope, he froze.
''I didn't really notice it until I looked back on it,'' Carney says. ''My mates were saying I was just sitting there. I was really nervous. It was something I have never experienced and it was strange.
''I was hit by it as I walked out. We walked out before the game and watched a little bit of the game before and there was not many [people] there. Then when you get out, it's in your face. It hit me. It was a good feeling but I just didn't adapt to it as I would have liked.
''It was just one of those things - you don't play good and that day the whole of Australia is watching.''
Since the first game of the series Carney has turned 26. It is noted during his interview with the Herald that despite only one Origin appearance he has already lived a life to fill a couple of books, and he has thought about writing one.
Expect it to be a warts-and-all affair - not your average, self-aggrandising airport autobiography - and with subject matter including a cop chase, booze, family tragedy and those tattoos (not to mention the actual football), it could be the wildest, most absorbing read since since The Dirt by Motley Crue.
As thick as that tome promises to be, you get the impression there are plenty of pages left to be turned.
The older, wiser Carney certainly hopes the Origin chapter of his career is only beginning. Brutally honest, he says he must learn from the Origin I experience, in which, after a decent start with the Blues on top, he went quiet.
''The beauty is I get another crack at it,'' Carney says. ''I am glad the first one is over and I am ready to go again. Everyone gets nervous. I don't want that to be the factor of why I didn't play good. Those things happen.
''The team went really well and in patches I felt I played good. But I guess there is a few things I don't usually let happen in my game. I know I will get them right this time.''
Carney is also confident the formative, three-way relationship between himself and playmaking partners Mitchell Pearce and Robbie Farah will blossom at ANZ Stadium.
Stuart conducted a video session at the team's Sydney base with his six, seven and nine after the Blues re-formed for Origin II. There were glitches to iron out after the 18-10 defeat in Melbourne, and Carney says he has to come to terms with the busyness of Farah.
''He directs the team from the ruck and that's what makes him the great player he is,'' Carney says. ''You have to adapt to that because he touches the ball more than most. We have done video - me, him and Mitchell, and there are parts we know we're going to be better.''
The match on Wednesday night will also be an exciting occasion for Carney's mother, Leann. She was at Etihad Stadium to watch his debut last month, and while that did not go exactly as he would have planned, he says it was a special occasion nonetheless.
''It was announced on Mother's Day that I was in the team,'' he says. ''That was the best news she had had in a while. It was good to know she was there. It gives you shivers when you talk about it.
''I always say she's the best mum in the world. I feel I have a different bond to most other people to Mum. She is like my best friend. I can ask her anything and expect an honest answer back.''
She did exactly that after Origin I, but while remarking to Carney that it was not his best game, she encouraged him to ''build off it and get better''.
He plans to do exactly that next week at ANZ Stadium in what he freely admits will be the ''biggest moment of my life''. If he gets it right this time, it could be the introduction to a whole new book. ''I am excited. I can't wait. It's going to be even bigger. What better place to do it than at home? Nerves or no nerves, get over it.''