One on One with: Matthew Primus
He’s a dual All-Australian, a former Port Adelaide captain and a member of the final Fitzroy Football Club AFL side. Now, Matthew Primus is coaching part-time with the Southport Sharks in Queensland, and he went One on One with Jack Hudson.
Jack Hudson: Take us back to the start of your footy days. What was life like growing up?
Matthew Primus: I grew up in Geelong, I started my footy in the YMCA under 8s or under 7s.
Just did the usual and had the oranges at quarter-time, half-time and three-quarter-time, play in different positions.
I went through the ranks there and spent the first few years doing that.
I then went to my junior club, the Grovedale Tigers, and went up through the ranks there.
JH: You moved across to the SANFL and played with Norwood. What was that like?
MP: That was really enjoyable, I was on Geelong’s list for about 18 months when they had their zones.
I was delisted then, and I wanted to go and play in a league and get drafted to the AFL, and like the SANFL is now, it’s the best competition to go to outside of the AFL/VFL system.
Norwood had been in contact with me from playing in the under 17 Australian carnival, and I had a pre-season there and liked what they were about, they had good coaching – Neil Craig was there at a time.
I had a ball over there, learned a fair bit about myself as a young bloke moving away from home, and got to play in some senior footy with some pretty hardened men, it was a good leg up for me to get back into the AFL.
JH: You got drafted to Fitzroy from there, which was a club that had its future up in air. What was it like being there and what was the feel around the club?
MP: The feel around the club was good when I got there, obviously they had their issues over the last two or three years before I got there regarding their finances.
A lot of their good senior players also left.
When I got there, we didn’t know it was going to be their last year.
Facility wise, they struggled, their oval had the VFL team and their school teams and those sorts of things, but they had a really good crop of youngsters.
Unfortunately, by the middle of the year, it was then they made the decision to merge with the Brisbane Bears.
There were guys, about 10 or 12 that could’ve been chosen to go up to Brisbane, it became pretty hard in the last few weeks of the season.
It was a real good sounding board and learning board that there’s things off the field that you can’t affect or can’t decide, so it was good in that regard.
JH: You had a pretty good season personally and finished second in the Lions’ last best & fairest count – what did that mean to you?
MP: You want to play good team footy, but once we merged and we lost our senior coach, we couldn’t see any future at Fitzroy, it was a bit more about learning about my game and compete each week and hold up a high standard.
The individual things you were trying to do were there, but there were some really good players that year, Martin Pike who I think went onto win the best & fairest finished with four premierships, Chris Johnson, Jarrod Molloy.
I was happy with how the year went, but I wanted to go to a club that was about being successful and give me the best chance to play my best footy and to play in a premiership eventually, and Port came knocking at the end of that year…I had knew a bit about them, I played against them at Norwood and I decided to make the move back over to Adelaide again.
JH: Were you confident you were going to get picked up after the merger?
MP: I was, I spoke to a few clubs, it was a matter of deciding where to go and what to do, that took a bit of time.
In the end, I think Port Adelaide was a pretty good choice to come to.
JH: Was a bit odd, after playing with Norwood, to represent Port on the big stage?
MP: Yeah, I suppose it was, they were the mortal enemies weren’t they, Port and Norwood, they still are.
Not only were Norwood an outstanding club and win premierships, you knew Port was exactly the same, they worked pretty hard to get into the AFL.
They knew with the kind of people they put in place, John Cahill as coach, Brian Cunningham as CEO, Mark Williams as an assistant, you knew they were fair dinkum about becoming good.
I know it was going to be hard work early days with a new team into the competition.
So, it was different, but you knew their history and knew what they were about.
JH: You played in Port’s first ever AFL game against Collingwood. What was it like running out onto the MCG that day?
MP: There was a fair bit of enjoyment, there were players from all over the country.
There were players listed from other clubs like Scott Cummings, Gavin Wanganeen, Shayne Breuer, we had guys from everywhere, then we had some Port Magpies lads, and there was a group of young SANFL players like Roger James, Warren Tredrea, Brendon Lade.
We had a hard pre-season and trained hard, playing Collingwood at the MCG was a great moment to walk out there with the Port colours, we didn’t get the result that day, but it didn’t take long before we were able to chalk up our first win.
JH: What was that first win over Geelong like?
MP: That was great, it was a Saturday night game, they were a pretty good team.
Our performances had been building, we had only just lost to Essendon the week before, so we were getting better and better.
It was terrific, the crowd was enormous, we were up for most of the game, it was a brilliant way to get the first win against a solid team.
That gave us the springboard that year, we just missed the eight, and if we won our last game we would’ve snuck into the finals.
It helped us get into winning form.
JH: You also played in the first Showdown which was the week after the Geelong win. What was the build up like that week?
MP: I think the build-up probably intensified a bit because we’d come off our first win, and all of a sudden, the belief in our group was high, and Adelaide had a really good team and a good coach with Malcolm Blight.
For us, it was a ‘what have we got to lose’ situation, we’d just won our first game over Geelong and all the pressure was on the Crows who had been in the system for a while.
That was another great win, and to have the first Showdown win be a back-to-back win after our first win, was great.
JH: You also finished second in the Port best & fairest that year – how did you find your first year with the Power?
MP: I enjoyed playing under Jack Cahill, he was a terrific coach who gave you a lot of confidence and inspired you to play a great brand of footy.
We were able to keep our standard up pretty high right up until the last game and just missed the finals.
It was about cementing yourself individually and also as a team blended together and playing well together, it gave us a real good springboard for the core group of guys who stayed with Port for many years on how to train and how to play.
JH: On the field in 1998 the results were similar, but off the field you were named ‘Most Eligible Bachelor.’ How did that come about, and did you cop some stick from the boys?
MP: I copped a bit, but I’m not sure how it all came about.
I took the opportunity to do it as a young fella, and it was just something on the side and a bit of fun.
On the field we didn’t kick on as much as we should’ve from that first year.
JH: You went down with your first serious knee injury in 1999. How hard was that especially considering the side was building so much?
MP: I did it up at the Gabba on the cricket pitch up there.
Knowing you do a knee, you know it takes you out of footy for a year.
There’s never a good time to do it, but if you do it at the start of the year you know the whole year is gone, all the work of the pre-season has gone out the window.
Just like most players have in their careers, you have obstacles and hurdles, and like life, you have your ups and downs, it was just another thing to fight through.
Yeah it was disappointing, as 1999 we played in our first final under ‘Choco’, to miss that build up and watch the side improve again was disappointing, but it builds the hunger for you to work on your own career and look forward to getting back to a team that was hopefully going to get better.
JH: 2001 was a great year for you – named captain, Ansett Cup flag and All-Australian. How much did all those things mean to you, particularly the captaincy?
MP: Coming off the 2000 season, in the middle of the year we were bottom of the ladder and there was a fair bit of heat on the coaches, especially coming off of 1999 when we played our first final against North.
We moved into our new facility in 2000, there was a bit of a feel about it, Gavin Wanganeen had been an outstanding leader for us and a figurehead for a club trying to play in the AFL system.
He stepped down to focus on playing, ‘Choco’ had a chat with me about the captaincy and I hadn’t really thought of it.
It was an honour to captain a great football club, and to do so on the AFL stage was something I looked forward to.
We worked really hard in the pre-season, the whole group, I tried to play my bit in that, we had a lot of things go right for us.
It was more understanding what we did wrong and where we fell down in the season 2000 that drove us all individually in a collective in 2001.
We won a few games and climbed up the ladder, a few of us had real good individual seasons, but that was based on a really strong collective, which allowed us to play our game a little bit more.
The captaincy was a real honour, and it’s something I look back on with a lot of pride.
JH: You followed up in 2002 with another All-Australian jumper and a best & fairest. What do you remember about that season?
MP: Like any club with their window or with an opportunity to win a premiership, it was all about trying to win as many games as you can and play at a high level.
In 2001 we became a team that other teams wanted to knock off, like Brisbane at that stage, the bee’s knees of the competition.
It was about maintaining our standard or lifting it, we recruited a few more players from other clubs and a really good home and away season.
We fell away in the finals, in 2002 we lost to Collingwood in a final at home and that put us back on the road again.
It was a great home and away season and unfortunately, we didn’t capitalise on our position on the ladder to go deep in the finals series.
It was a really good season, but a wasted chance by not being able to play a preliminary final at home.
JH: Later that year you played in the International Rules Series. How did you go with the mixed game?
MP: Well, I wasn’t very good at it mate, it’s definitely a running, midfielders, half-back, half-forward game.
It’s not really a key position or a ruck’s kind of game.
I enjoyed the travelling with 25 of the best players from Australia in Ireland.
We spent time training and playing over there and meeting other players, because back then the only time you would mingle with them was when you were playing against them.
I enjoyed the aspect of going over there and playing, but the game didn’t suit me too well.
JH: You were injured for most of 2003, and it was probably Port’s biggest missed opportunity for a flag. Was it hard to watch not being out there?
MP: It was a weird hamstring kind of injury that I couldn’t shake, it came back a few times.
We lost to Sydney in our first final and had to go and play Collingwood away and missed an opportunity.
You know as a club you want to play in finals and you want to play in them to get to a grand final.
To miss them, individually it was disappointing not to be a part of it and sit back and watch it, but as a collective, the pressure was growing on the club and it certainly left a bitter taste in your mouth.
You just have to get back on the horse again, go hard in the pre-season and give yourselves another opportunity.
Each year, while we were unable to get to a grand final, we were able to back it up and give ourselves another opportunity, which was a pretty good trait of the club we were at that time.
JH: You made your comeback from injury in a game against Hawthorn in 2004, and then you went down with an ACL. Did you know straight away?
MP: Obviously having done one before, you know straight away.
I think it was the first pre-season I didn’t try and do everything, made sure I was right for the season.
I might have missed the first game of the season with a strain, just wanted to make sure I was cherry ripe, and you weren’t just training for the sake of it but looking after your body a bit more was starting to come into the AFL environment a bit more.
Not knowing we were going to win a flag that year, but there was a real vibe around the club that we were going to win a lot of games again and we were going to play finals again, to do that early on and know you were going to miss the whole year isn’t a great feeling.
But as a leader of the club, you try and do what you can, you can’t do much but try and be around the club as much as you can and be a positive influence.
JH: The grand final, people have said you were the happiest man around that day despite not playing, so how did you feel at that final siren?
MP: I shed a few tears on the ground with a couple of close mates, and they were tears of happiness because the club was under a huge amount of pressure, and you only have to look at ‘Choco’ at that stage, he was under the most pressure.
It was tears of relief, and no doubt individually sadness to miss out on it.
As much as everyone played a role in it, in the end it’s the 22 out there and the coaching staff who win you the premiership.
To miss out on it after going through so much was really disappointing, but to play a part, even though it was a small part, was great and to see the club hang in there tough for a few years when we didn’t quite get there was really satisfying.
JH: In 2005, how determined were you to play after the flag despite some injuries clouding you again?
MP: There were a few that missed out through injury and selection, we still thought we had the list capable of doing it.
Like most teams who win a flag, you’re delayed a bit into your pre-season, we were up and about, we didn’t play consistent footy, we won a few and lost a couple.
We never really got rolling even though we played finals again.
Being another year out of footy, the body struggled getting back to playing week by week, and I think I did my knee in the last round of that season.
I would’ve missed the whole of 2006 if I continued on, it was going to be too long.
The body wasn’t going the way I needed it to compete, so it was an easy decision to make in the end.
JH: You moved into the coaching ranks as an assistant to ‘Choco’, was that something that interested you while dealing with injuries in 2004?
MP: Yeah it was, some players with a long-term injury like to get away from the club and not be around all the time.
But I loved training, working on my injury and being involved in the meetings with the coaches.
I was lucky enough ‘Choco’ and the other coaches, Phil Walsh, Dean Bailey, David Pittman, Alastair Clarkson, if you wanted to be involved, they involved you as much as they could.
The coaching aspect grew over those years, and it was a pretty easy decision to stay along and learn from a great group of coaches.
JH: You became the caretaker coach in 2010 following ‘Choco’s’ departure. Was it hard to take over from someone who had not only been your coach, but a mentor as well?
MP: No doubt, you never want to see a coach get moved on, especially one who has been the club’s greatest coach of all time.
It was hard, but there was a fair bit of work to be done, and it was a great opportunity individually, I spoke to him when it all happened about the opportunity across those six or seven weeks to try and get something out of the year.
It was good to be able to do that and being a senior coach for a couple months.
JH: You got the job permanently from there. What did you expect going into your first year in 2011?
MP: Having worked at the club for a few years before that, our list had a core group of older guys like Warren Tredrea, Brendon Lade, Peter Burgoyne, Chad Cornes and those kinds of guys.
They were coming towards the end, then we had a good group of draftees, so we had a good mix, and then we had a few blokes who hadn’t played much footy.
My thinking was to play everyone on our list, have a look at our list and see who’s capable and who’s not and go to the draft.
That was my philosophy out of it, it was to see where we were as a club, and maybe that wasn’t going to be right at the top of the ladder in my mind, but let’s find out and let’s build a list to give us a chance to play regularly in finals and have a chance to win another flag.
Obviously, it didn’t play out that way, I lasted only a couple of years and in the end the performances weren’t good enough and that’s fair enough.
You live in the bed that you make, and that was the way it rolled.
JH: Throughout that time, you did have a number of great wins, but hard losses. How did you keep positive throughout it all?
MP: The group of players knew the path we were going down, they were a group that just wanted to get better every week, even though we knew the results weren’t there.
It was easy to turn up to work each week because of the playing group’s passion to get better and the coaches’ passion to get better.
You knew there were hard times ahead, but that’s the belief in the group of staying together and pushing through that and getting to the other end.
You take the little wins, there may be players improving, a little away win, just things you take out of it, which helped week by week get by.
JH: You eventually moved up to the Gold Coast after Port as an assistant. Did you enjoy the change of scenery?
MP: It was good, I had a few options once I’d moved on from Port.
The Gold Coast had just come into the competition, so the chance to work with a lot of great young players and a new frontier.
Even though Port Adelaide was based in Adelaide, a footy state, it was a new club trying to find their way in the AFL system.
The Gold Coast was similar even though they were in a frontier that had no idea about AFL footy at all.
There were some similarities in starting up a new club and I wanted to be involved with that, they’ve had their issues for a variety of issues.
It was really rewarding work working with a bunch of guys that want to get somewhere and obviously Gold Coast don’t have many players coming out of the Gold Coast, they were from all over Australia.
That was really rewarding working with them.
JH: Now you’re working with Southport on a part-time basis. How have you enjoyed it so far?
MP: It’s a good step back on another level, it’s not at the elite level on a full-time level, it’s a reserves competition for the Swans, Lions, Giants and the Gold Coast, and there’s a few other state teams.
It’s a strong competition, they’ve got some guys wanting to get drafted and there’s some who have full-time work and love being involved with footy and play at a high level.
It’s got a good feel to it, they won the premiership last year.
It’s good to step back another level and see the passion these players have even though they’re not full-time AFL players.