“When I was 18 they said, ‘The Broncos have their eye on you’. That was my first year out of school. The next year they looked at me and liked what they saw … I was lucky enough to be picked up by the Broncos in 1989.” “I was playing up to three games a weekend, playing Under 19, Reserve Grade and First Grade,” he says. “When I was 18 they said, ‘The Broncos have their eye on you’. That was my first year out of school. The next year they looked at me and liked what they saw … I was lucky enough to be picked up by the Broncos in 1989.” The following year, Willie played in the Queensland Rugby League First Grade competition for the Broncos Colts Under 21 team on the Sunshine Coast, “we’d play against the Caloundra Sharks and Nambour Crushers as kids and that was our first year”. “The Brisbane Colts hadn’t been around, this was the first time they’d done it, then we went from there to be graded – the next year I played for the Broncos.” Willie, whose childhood hero was Wally Lewis, remembers his first training session with the Broncos vividly. “At that first training session at Fulcher Road, Wally yelled out to me, ‘Mate can you throw me the ball?’ I still remember throwing him the footy, it was probably a 40m torpedo pass and I threw it as hard as I could and he dropped it,” he says with a wide smile. “Those little things that happen with people who you look up to in life are so important.” Willie made an impression early on in his career and played State of Origin in his first year. “In my first State of Origin game, I played number five, Mal Meninga was number four and Wally was number six, so when you get in the dressing room they have your jerseys in order of lockers, number one through to 17 – Mal was there, little Willie was here and the King was there,” he says, gesturing. The game was at the old Lang Park, in front of 33,000 people, which in those days included XXXX Hill. “It is definitely the most defining thing I’ve done in my life,” he says of running out onto the field. By the time he was 21 and in his second year, he was already representing Australia. “Their first game was New Zealand vs. Australia down in Sydney,” he says. “They got an absolute hiding and I played the second game, we beat them 40 points to six. As a highlight from any person’s career, representing your country is definitely by far the most amazing thing you can ever do – wearing the green and gold.” Willie played 10 tests for Australia and was instrumental in winning several NRL premierships, State of Origin clashes and the 1992 World Cup for the Kangaroos. 3“I scored 10 tries when I played the World Cup final in Wembley in England, which was one of the biggest highlights of all the games I played, that was in front of about 90,000 people,” he says. “It was ridiculous that three years earlier I was playing bush footy to almost score the winning try of a World Cup final series. I was just a quiet-spoken skinny little bush kid from Roma … it just goes to show anyone can do whatever they like.” But when Willie was 25, he injured his ankle at training, chasing Steve Renouf. “I still played through another three years but it’s amazing how much an injury can affect one’s performance, but I was lucky to even get that far, there are a lot of guys who don’t even get to finish school without chronic knee, shoulder and ankle injuries.” In 1997, Willie retired from the game he loved so much, when he was just 28-years-old. “I wish I wasn’t injured because when you’ve tried so hard and put so much into it and walk away from the game quite young,” he says, trailing off. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist so when you can’t compete at the level you want, I found it quite hard to be able to do that. I had a meeting with Wayne (Bennett) and said I’m not playing the level of footy I should be because of my injury and I don’t want to let the 
team down. “Looking back on it now I’m still shaking my head, it’s so hard getting to that level of football, even getting to play Reserve Grade now is hard work, so to get where I did I think I was pretty lucky.” Even as a football player, Willie says he enjoyed real estate, buying a few investment properties and dabbling in various opportunities. So after retiring from the game, it made sense to forge a new career path. He obtained his license in 2002 and spent five years working on developments in Brisbane before relocating to Noosa. Having seen the industry peak and trough, Willie predicts big things for Sunshine Coast real estate. “When people start wanting to be somewhere greener and less populated, with the beaches close, anywhere on the Sunshine Coast has to get dearer,” he says. “There are so many tightly held properties in the Noosa area that will never get sold, so it’s probably only 75 per cent of the market that will ever come to sale, there are third and fourth generation owners and they’ll never sell. “The Sydney boom, the Melbourne boom and inner city Brisbane, there’s so much wealth there, once that translates up here, there’s only one way prices have to go, it has to go up.” While it was hard to walk away from the game of football, Willie says he doesn’t miss playing. In fact until a few months ago he remained plagued with aches and pains, niggling reminders of his time on the field. For years he had relied on anti inflammatories and fish oil tablets, but in May, Willie switched the meds for a lean food diet with no dairy, “all my aches and pains have gone away for the first time of my life”. Willie has also dropped a few kilos and upped his exercise regime to the point he’s doing a mini triathlon every day, as well as gym training. “Now I’ve got two young boys, they’re five and seven and they’re starting to enjoy sports,” he says. “My dad was a good role model for me … so it’s going to be a good time in the next 10 years, with the kids developing.” Now aged 46, he loves spending his spare time with his sons, Wil and Jed, reaping the rewards of living on the Sunshine Coast. “This is God’s country,” he beams, “Noosa Main Beach, to me, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life, I’ve only been to Hawaii once and Waikiki is pretty famous but it’s nothing on Noosa”. With his sons by his side, Willie slips off his shoes and steps onto the pristine white sand, he’s still kicking goals barefoot – but this time they’re goals of a different kind.]]>