It was May 24, 2006, minutes after one of the most exciting endings to a game in State of Origin history, and I was one of a mass of media crowding around the man of the moment, Blues’ matchwinner Brett Finch.
Just 24 hours earlier Finch had been in a pub, well into a two-day bender, when he received a call telling him to get to the NSW team hotel pronto. First choice halfback Craig Gower had injured himself at training.
Second and third-string choices had also pulled out hurt and Joey Johns turned down a desperate plea from selectors to make a comeback from retirement.
Finch was last man standing. Jumping into a cab because he was over the legal limit to drive, he got to the Blues hotel at 11pm, had a quick run with the team the next morning still nursing a hangover, and that night ran onto Telstra Stadium for the game of his life.
With five minutes to go, NSW led 16-10 and looked to have the first game of the series in the bag, then Queensland’s Steven Bell scored in the corner and Johnathan Thurston converted from the sideline to tie it all up.
Footy star Brett Finch reports to St George Police Station in Sydney after being charged with using a carriage service to transmit or publish or promote child abuse
Finch has admitted to trying to replace the highs of football through alcohol and drugs until he met his wife Ellie (pictured, right)
As the seconds ticked away into the final minute, Finch took a pass from Blues’ captain Danny Buderus 38m out and calmly slotted a field goal to win the game by a point and send the parochial home crowd into a frenzy.
Standing in the dressing room after the game, laughing and joking with reporters and backslappers over the incongruity of what had just happened, it seemed like there was some magical aura about Finch that night.
In might have been his blonde-hair, the irrepressible grin or the steam rising off his number 20 jersey, but right then and there, in the glow of the TV lights, he was rugby league’s golden boy.
It was the best moment of his life. Last Monday morning was the worst.
While it is important to note that he has been found guilty of nothing at this stage, it was impossible to equate the upbeat, exuberant footballer with the world at his feet that I had seen that night 15 years ago with the news footage of a 40-year-old Finch being led from his home by police to face charges of using a carriage service to transmit or publish or promote child abuse.
Just as it is impossible to answer the question that so many people are asking right now: what the hell is going on?
For as long as anyone can remember Brett Finch has been the NRL’s eternal teenager – a super-fit, super-competitive livewire on the field, and a hard-living funster off it.
A 2017 ‘Where Are They Now?’ article in the Melbourne Storm newsletter began with the statement, ‘You would be hard pressed to find a former Storm player as endearing as Brett Finch’.
The son of rugby league royalty, as he tells it, he ‘grew up in dressing rooms from the age of four or five’.
There was never any doubt about what Finch wanted to do with his life: he just wanted to be like his father.
Finch’s dad Robert was a rugby league legend in the Hunter Valley region of NSW. A student at Maitland Boys High, in 1972 he was a member of arguably the greatest-ever Australian schoolboy side and which went undefeated in their 12-match tour of England, scoring 108 tries and conceding just one.
He then joined the St George Dragons, playing 118 matches at centre for the club between 1974-80, including the 1977 and 1979 grand final wins.
Finch kicked the winning field goal of State of Origin I on May 24, 2006 after being called into the team at the 11th hour but says he struggled with life after football
Ellie Johnston was seen returning home after a swim this week after her husband Brett Finch’s dramatic arrest
With his playing career over, he returned home and joined the coaching staff of the fledgling Newcastle Knights where he was a mentor to up-and-coming locals like Paul Harragon and the Johns brothers who would often be at the Finch home for team meetings and drinking sessions.
It was in that environment that young Brett Finch was introduced to the game that would one day consume him.
‘Dad was a hero in the Hunter Valley. The day after a game, the players would have a keg in our backyard. They would be there from midday to midnight,’ he told interviewer Matty Johns in a 2019 podcast.
‘It was all such fun. I was the Knights’ ballboy from the time I was eight years old. My whole life was footy, it was all I ever wanted to do.’
With his father moving into administration as football manager of the Canberra Raiders in 1998, Brett tried out for the club and made his first grade debut at the age of 17 while still at high school.
Finch’s dad Robert (pictured at a press conference in 2005) was a former NRL referees coach and a legend in the Hunter Valley region of NSW
He would go on to play 330 games for the Raiders, Roosters, Eels, Storm and Wigan Warriors before retiring after the 2013 season.
His father, who was the NRL’s referees director from 2002-2010, has been executive manager of football operations for St George Illawarra Dragons for the past 10 years.
While he managed to follow in Robert’s footsteps on the field, Brett never managed to make as smooth a transition into life off the field. He secured media work on TV and radio, but his bubbly personality and self-deprecating humour masked a steady slide into drink, drugs and depression.
‘I thought I was prepared to retire but I wasn’t,’ he told Johns in the 2019 podcast.
‘I was single through my career and footy was like a family to me. It’s your identity. Then one day you’re a footy player and the next day no-one cares. The light’s turned off. It’s over, and there’s always a new star coming along.
‘I always felt I’d be alright because I thought I was a mentally tough bloke, but I really struggled.’
Finch says he tried to replace the highs of football through alcohol and drugs. Several times he underwent counselling for mental health issues and checked himself into rehabilitation for addiction.
He lost both his major media jobs after drug meltdowns and retreated further into his shell.
Finch said he only ever dreamed of being like his dad before going on to play 330 games for the Raiders, Roosters, Eels, Storm and Wigan Warriors before retiring after the 2013 season
‘I drank in isolation,’ he told Johns. ‘For months I didn’t answer my phone. I wouldn’t even talk to my best mates. I knew I was in big trouble and the path I was heading down.
‘When I did go out, I could cover it up and play the joker, but underneath I knew I had some issues.
‘I remember speaking to someone professionally and they said ‘you live in North Bondi. It’s beautiful there. Go down to the beach and watch the sunrise.’
‘So I get up one morning and go and watch the sunrise and I go, this is it? Who gives a shit? This is nothing like playing a grand final.’
Or kicking the winning field goal in the last minute of a State of Origin game, the high that Finch has been struggling to recreate unsuccessfully for the past 25 years.
In recent times Finch has been very open in podcasts about the depths to which he has sunk, but if the current charges against him are proven in court, clearly his demons are deeper and darker than any normal person could imagine.