Best remembered as one of the most versatile players of the modern era with Sydney Roosters and St Helens, the first of Chris Flannery’s 10 appearances for Queensland was a sidelight to the most infamous Origin debut of all time.
“To be called into the Queensland side was a massive shock,” Flannery told Commentary Box Sports.
“Myself and Justin Hodges debuted in that same match, and ‘Hodgo’ was playing for the Roosters at the time as well, and we were lucky enough to have a win in that game.”
Flannery was chosen on the bench for the Maroons’ must-win assignment in game two of the 2002 series – with the match played on his 22nd birthday no less – and was pitched into the action in less-than-ideal circumstances, replacing club-mate Hodges, who had come up with two horror in-goal plays that gifted tries to NSW.
“Wayne Bennett was the coach and he basically said to me, ‘be ready to go on in any position, I’m not sure where you’ll have to go on’,” he recalls.
“But the one position I didn’t really want to go on was on the wing.
“But ‘Hodgo’ threw a couple of wayward passes and I head the message come down on the radio that I was going in on the wing.
“Luckily I didn’t get peppered with too many bombs, but it was a bit of an eye-opener, and the overall speed of Origin was crazy. Lote Tuqiri scored a hat-trick and got us across the line.”
Hodges was dropped despite the 26-18 victory, while Flannery was replaced in the squad for the decider by another newcomer in Brent Tate.
A grand final winner’s ring followed later that year for the 22-year-old and he was a representative regular for the ensuing four years – all while filling virtually every spot on the Roosters’ team sheet.
The Kawana junior headed for Super League at his peak, spending a decorated six-season stint with the Saints, before coming full circle and taking on the daunting post of CEO for the battling Sunshine Coast Falcons, who he has led to remarkable success in the same unassuming manner he got the job done on the field.
Starting out in ‘enemy territory’
Flannery comes across as your archetypal Queenslander, but his journey began in Cowra, a relatively small town in the Central West region of New South Wales.
His family pulled up stumps and moved to the Sunshine Coast when Chris was 10, though, and the youngster started pulling on the boots for the Kawana Dolphins.
“Most of the family has made the migration to the warmer weather, but I’ve got some fond memories from down there, playing footy in NSW,” Flannery says.
“But I don’t admit that to too many people in Queensland!”
Flannery’s promise gradually shone through and piqued the interest of the South Queensland Crushers, but the unstable rugby league climate of the mid-1990s ultimately set him on a path back down south.
“The first rep team I made was a Sunshine Coast Under-12s side, and once I made that side I got a bit of a taste for it I guess.
“I continued to make the Sunshine Coast representative sides, but it wasn’t until Under-17s that I made a Queensland side, and also the Queensland Schoolboys team, so that ’97 year was fairly successful for me.
“I was actually signed with the (South) Queensland Crushers when I was about 15, and they had a lot of really good Queensland players who were playing in Queensland Schoolboys teams at the time.
“Unfortunately they only lasted a couple of years before they folded, so it was probably around that time when I was making a couple of those rep sides that I came off scholarship, and ‘Artie’ Beetson saw me playing for Queensland Under-17s and we started talking to the Roosters.
“I spoke to the Roosters and Parramatta, and also the Brisbane Broncos – obviously they were just down the road – and I remember (famed Broncos talent scout) Cyril Connell and Paul Bunn coming up to the house to talk to mum and dad and myself.”
But it was Flannery’s other passion that edged the Roosters ahead of the other NRL heavyweight suitors – though it helped the club also possessed one of the competition’s best rosters.
“I eventually ended up signing with the Roosters off the back of them being near the beach – I was very keen surfer, surfed every day, and obviously there’s some great beaches down in Maroubra and Bondi, and that’s probably what made the decision a bit easier,” he admits.
“There’s a few more waves in the Eastern Suburbs (of Sydney) than what there is in Brisbane.
“Obviously it was also because the Roosters were a great club, and guys like Brad Fittler, ‘Gus’ Gould was the coach at the time, Adrian Lam, Ivan Cleary, Bryan Fletcher, Jack Elsegood were there, and that swayed my decision.”
The Roosters’ ‘Mr Fix-it’
After cementing a spot in the Roosters’ Premier League side during the 2000 season, Flannery made his NRL debut midway through the year aged just 19.
“There was guys like (John) Hopoate, Darren Senter, and it was out at Campbelltown. I only got the call-up the day before, so it was a real baptism of fire playing against a really tough side, and we got beat that day.”
Following that bench appearance Flannery’s only other top-grade outing in 2000 was at five-eighth, deputing for NSW captain Fittler, and he scored a try in a 22-20 win over Northern Eagles. He also won selection in the NSW Residents side and the Combined First Division team.
But he would become a crucial part of Graham Murray’s first-grade squad in 2001.
Flannery broke into the side in Round 4 and played 23 straight games – including starts at halfback, fullback, centre, wing and five-eighth.
“Coming through the ranks I was usually a centre at club level, and when I got to the rep sides there was some really good centres in Queensland at the time – guys who were earmarked to go onto the NRL – so I could never break into the centres in the rep sides, and I always fullback.
“When I went to the Roosters I ended up playing more in the centres again, and I think our Under-19s five-eighth got injured so I got thrown in there and played pretty well.
“Whenever ‘Freddy’ (Fittler) was away with Origin I was put in that No.6 jersey in first grade, but because the Roosters side was fairly strong at the time (my versatility) was just a way for me to get into the side each week.
“When Ricky Stuart came to the club, because I was so versatile, I think it gave him a different option and some insurance if we got some injuries.”
Despite taking the Roosters to the 2000 grand final in his first season in charge, Graham Murray was unceremoniously dumped at the end of the following season after the team finished seventh.
But the harsh axing of Murray brought rookie mentor Ricky Stuart into the hot-seat – and provided the Roosters with the hard edge they needed to break a premiership drought that had extended past a quarter of a century.
“(Stuart) was the ultimate competitor and a great halfback, a great footy brain,” Flannery enthuses.
“He gave us the bit of steel that we needed. There was no secret to his training, we just trained hard, and we were probably the fittest team in the competition in 2002 when we won.
“As you probably saw during that time, our line-speed was great and (we were) really physical and aggressive, and that’s the way Ricky was. It probably came out in our footy.”
The Roosters’ 2002 line-up reads like an All-Star combination, but veterans Fittler, Bryan Fletcher, Brett Mullins, Luke Ricketson and Adrian Morley were the squad’s only existing Origin or Test players.
Flannery and Hodges broke into the Queensland side during that season, while Anthony Minichiello, Shannon Hegarty, Craig Wing, Craig Fitzgibbon and Michael Crocker earned their Origin spurs the following year, and Jason Cayless and Andrew Lomu received Kiwis call-ups.
Flannery continued to perform the gap-filler role, adding lock and second-row to his repertoire but regularly pitching in as a half or centre. He started in the same position two games in a row just three times.
The Roosters were tentatively placed in sixth after Round 21, but they went on a nine-match winning run that climaxed with a 30-8 grand final triumph over the Warriors. Flannery featured at fullback in the first two finals matches, before scoring one of the Roosters’ five tries in the decider off the bench.
“At 22 to win an NRL grand final was pretty special,” Flannery says.
“I probably look back now and think I should have cherished it a bit more at the time, but I was young at that stage and thought there’d be a few more of these come along.”
The Roosters went desperately close to creating a modern rugby league dynasty, but were upset in two subsequent classic grand finals by the Panthers and Bulldogs respectively.
It was a lost opportunity, but not one the laidback Flannery dwells on too much.
“Looking back at the team we had, we probably should have. We played two more grand finals in ’03 and ’04, and managed to lose both of those. But it wasn’t to be, and it’s definitely a great memory winning that grand final.”
Flannery displayed his underrated toughness by lining up in the 2004 decider despite suffering a ruptured testicle in the previous week’s prelim final, earning him a place in the annals of grand final folklore.
He also copped one of the biggest hits of the NRL era from Sonny Bill Williams in that match and still managed to brush it off.
Flannery returned to the Queensland side on the bench for the 2003 series opener but injury ruled him out for the remaining two games. In something of an ironic twist given their debut experience together a year earlier, Hodges suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 25-12 loss.
But the utility became a permanent fixture for the Maroons the following season, though he was confronted with a daunting assignment in the ’04 series opener – stepping into the five-eighth role in the place of the injured Australian captain.
“Those first couple of years allowed me to get into the team, and by 2004 and ’05, ’06 I was pretty much playing backrow all the time. I played the majority in the backrow, but I think my versatility kept me in the (Queensland) side for a long time,” he says.
“Playing the State of Origin at six when Darren Lockyer was injured, that was definitely a bit of a shock. I’d played a couple of series, and ‘Locky’ came up to me that year and said he wasn’t going to be right.
“So me and ‘Princey’ (debutant Scott Prince) were in the halves together and we just got beat by a field goal.”
Appearing at five-eighth for Queensland puts Flannery in exalted company. Indeed, since his sole foray in the No.6, Lockyer (20 games), Karmichael Hunt (1) and Johnathan Thurston (17) are the only players to have worn the jumper.
“There’s obviously some great Queenslanders to have worn the six jersey, so to be in that sort of company you just pinch yourself.”
Flannery switched back to the bench for the remaining two games after Lockyer returned, while he played all three matches in the No.13 in 2005 – but the Maroons succumbed 2-1 in both series, despite Flannery’s workhorse displays in defence.
A Prime Minister’s XIII rep at the end of ’05, an early-season injury had him sitting on the sidelines at the time the teams were chosen for the 2006 series opener. Flannery returned on the bench for game two, however, and in a rehearsed move, he broke off a scrum before popping an inside ball for Carl Webb to storm over for the opening try of the Maroons’ 30-6 series-levelling win.
That result set the scene for Flannery to play his part in a momentous triumph that kick-started Queensland’s unprecedented streak.
“If I’m being honest we probably had a bit of rough period there. Obviously the recent era has been an amazing ride for the Queenslanders, but at that stage if we lost that last game it was going to be the first time that any team had lost four series in row.
“So there was a heap of pressure on us, and guys like Darren Lockyer, Steve Price, Petero Civoniceva were all under a fair bit of pressure to perform. And as we know we were down and out, but Locky managed to scoop up that ball and score the winner for us.
“That’s definitely the highlight of my Origin career.”
Flannery was regularly used at five-eighth in 2005 as the Roosters struggled to adjust to Fittler’s retirement – missing the finals for the first time in a decade – before returning to a more customary backrow role in ’06.
Still only 26 as the 2007 season approached and regarded as an integral member of a Queensland side on the crest of a new era of greatness, the first major injury setback of Flannery’s career changed his trajectory.
“In 2007 I broke my leg and ankle in a trial and missed the majority of the NRL season,” he remembers.
“It was coming up to June or July and I still hadn’t played any footy and I was still recovering.
“I was off-contract with the Roosters at the end of the season, and there weren’t any guarantees there was going to be a renewal. I got a call from Daniel Anderson over at St Helens and they basically offered me a four-year deal.
“I’d always planned to go over and play Super League at some stage. It was probably a year or two earlier than I wanted to, but it’s a tricky time when you’re injured and not really knowing how long it was going to take to recover.
“A lot of good players had been forced out of the Roosters in the (previous) 12 months and I thought that I wasn’t too far behind, so a bit of security with a great club like St Helens was the catalyst, but I needed to have a fresh start.”
Flannery made a mid-season switch and was drafted straight into the Saints’ line-up in July, playing in the club’s 33-6 loss to the Leeds in the 2007 grand final.
Silverware – and a career highlight – was to follow the following season, though, with St Helens downing Hull 28-16 in the 2008 Challenge Cup final in front of 82,821 fans at Wembley.
“The English crowds are so noisy and vocal, and it was just a wonderful atmosphere, and to win the Challenge Cup was just outstanding.”
But Flannery’s grand final day woes continued. He was part of the St Helens sides that went down in the 2008, ’09 and ’10 deciders, while injury kept him out of the club’s fifth straight grand final defeat in 2011.
“After (winning) that first one (in 2002), then going on to lose a couple in the NRL and then a couple in Super League, I definitely felt a bit cursed on grand final day,” Flannery laments.
“They’re tough to lose, that’s for sure, and it was definitely a couple of missed opportunities there.”
St Helens forward Chris Flannery set to retire: St Helens’ Australian back-row forward Chris Flannery is set to … http://t.co/RImSb77V
— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) February 22, 2012
Back to the Coast
After six seasons and 138 games for St Helens – where he was allowed to settle into a regular backrow role, with 16 games in the centres the only diversion – the 32-year-old hung up the boots and returned to Australia at the end of 2012.
A rugby league opportunity, albeit a formidable one, soon opened up for Flannery in his home region.
“I came back at the end of 2012 and had a bit of a break, and started selling a bit of real estate around the Sunshine Coast.
“At the end of the 2013 season the Sunshine Coast Sea Eagles (as they were known) at the time, they approached me (to take over as CEO).
“They’d had a couple of rough seasons, they’d lost their feeder club the Manly Sea Eagles, and they were playing in the Queensland competition without a feeder team.
“They were the wooden spooners at the time, and it was a tough decision – I knew there was a lot of work that had to be done there – but in the end I took the job.”
“In 2014 when I took over we must have been at about 25 or 26 losses (in a row), so that was a challenge but I knew what I was getting into.
“I originally said no to the job, but after a week or two of thinking about the role and who was going to do it, and obviously I was a local guy who had been around – been down to Sydney and over to England, and had quite a bit of experience – I thought at the time I was probably walking away from a challenge, so I called up the chairman and said I’d do the job.”
The Falcons’ losing streak extended to a Queensland Cup record 36 games during Flannery’s first season at the helm, but breakthrough victories on and off the field turned their fortunes around.
“We still had no feeder team and we were having a pretty rough season in 2014, but it was a bit of shining light (when) we were able to sign the Melbourne Storm as our feeder team for the next three years.
“I think it was around the same weekend we had our first win in 36 games (against Redcliffe) and signed the feeder deal with the Storm, so that was a big turning point for the club.
Falcons CEO Chris Flannery has done a great job in preparing the club for the season affiliation with Melbourne Storm pic.twitter.com/8gWUBjNVAk
— Cr Mark Jamieson (@JamiesonMark) March 5, 2015
“We didn’t win another game that season, but we got the monkey off our back and in 2015 we won seven games, and you could see things starting to develop.”
The Falcons’ return to respectability peaked with a preliminary final appearance in 2016 – testament to the tireless work and optimism of Flannery and his administration, and the coaching and playing staff.
“At the end of last year we brought in Craig Ingebridt as the coach, who had done a fantastic job down at the Easts Tigers, one of the biggest clubs in the competition, and he helped changed the culture and brought in a few new players.
“We were only 80 minutes off playing in a grand final this year, so it’s been a big turnaround. It’s been fun.”
Flannery says his passion for Sunshine Coast rugby league was ultimately the decisive factor in taking on the seemingly thankless task – a decision which has proved mutually beneficial beyond probably both parties’ wildest dreams in such a short space of time.
“When I was at the stage where I wasn’t going to take the job, that’s what I thought about.
“I thought the region deserved to have a strong side here, and there’s so many people that love their footy on the Sunshine Coast. We’ve got about 3,500 juniors here, so it’s a big nursery. There’s about 1,700 senior players as well, so we needed to have a strong team for these junior kids to aspire to.
“We were just lucky we were linked to one of the stronger sides in the NRL and they’ve been fantastic for us, a really good support for the last couple of years and obviously we get some of the best players come back here and play for us.
“We also play out of Sunshine Coast Stadium, which in my opinion is the best stadium in the competition, so we’re very lucky.”
Despite being thrown in the deep end, Flannery is clearly a dab hand at the rugby league administration caper – and he hasn’t ruled out a role in the higher echelons of the code.
“When I first took the job I didn’t really see that (as an option), I didn’t really have any ambitions of going into the NRL system.
“Even though I’ve been in the job for a couple of years now I’m still learning. The footy side of it probably came pretty easy, but when it comes to looking at budgets and sponsorship and things like that, that’s when you’ve got to learn on your feet.
“But I’m really enjoying it, and when you have a bit of success like the team had this year it makes you a little bit hungrier.
“So if there was a job that popped up down the track, I’d definitely have a look at it.”
And given his exploits as a player and a club CEO in almost two decades in rugby league, you can bet the words ‘versatile’, ‘adaptable’ and ‘multipurpose’ will feature fairly prominently if Flannery decides to drop in a cover letter at the NRL.
CHRIS FLANNERY – CAREER OVERVIEW
Queensland (2003-06): 10 Origins (5 wins, 5 losses) – 0 points
Sydney Roosters (2000-07): 126 games (74 wins, 50 losses, 2 draws) – 38 tries (152 points)
St Helens (2007-12): 138 games (96 wins, 38 losses, 4 draws) – 42 tries (168 points)