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Legend Q&A: Ashton Sims

The son of a dairy farmer who rose at 3am to do his job without fail, Ashton Sims has hard work in his blood.

It's a trait that took the forward to the elite ranks of rugby league, playing 228 NRL matches for St George Illawarra, Brisbane and North Queensland, as well as a stint in England and representing Fiji.

The proud Gerringong product made his NRL debut as an 18-year-old in 2003 before retiring in 2019.

The brother of Dragons players Tariq and Korbin and women's league pioneer Ruan, he relived his 17-year career with NRL.com.

In this Legend Q&A, the 35-year-old opens up about how his teammates used printed-out posts from fan websites as motivation, the semi-final error he still thinks about and why he refused to renege on a UK Super League contract to stay in the NRL.

Legend Q&A: Ashton Sims

What was it like growing up on the NSW South Coast with a footy family?

It was the best childhood I could have asked for, it really was. We learnt the value of a dollar. We come from a really hard-working family - my mother was a stay-at-home mum who studied a lot and my father was a dairy farmer.

I watched my father wake up at 3 o'clock every morning from Monday through to Saturday and go to work, whether it was rain, hail or shine, whether he felt like he wanted to, whether he was sick or feeling great, injured or not. He had a real purpose and his purpose was his family and to provide as best he can.

That instilled a real good work ethic in all of us and something I still take through to this day is how hard he worked to try and provide the best life he could for us.

I don't regret missing out on things in my life, especially in those early days. We didn't have much money, but what we did have was the love of each other and we had music and we had sport.

It was the best childhood to grow up with, because at times, without embarrassing my parents, we didn't have TVs for large periods of time. So it wasn't like we could just come home from school and sit in front of the TV.

We had to go home and make our fun outside, and a lot of that was around cricket, rugby league and surfing. It didn't fare us too bad in the end.

Did you have dreams of playing professional sport?

I did, always. A real passion of mine was sitting there listening to games on the radio, ABC Grandstand, with my father.

Watching some games as well: one of my earliest memories is Craig Simon - he used to work on the Illawarra County Council with my father - he got us two tickets when Johnny Simon made the City-Country game in Wollongong.

Ashton Sims hits it up for St George Illawarra in 2004.
Ashton Sims hits it up for St George Illawarra in 2004. ©NRL Photos

That was a huge catalyst for me to continue my rugby league career. I think I was only 10 at the time, but as soon as that day came I knew that's what I wanted to do. Around 14 or 15 I really dedicated my life to being a professional rugby league player.

It was one of those things that just gave me a real sense of purpose and a real sense of pride, and I wanted to make my parents proud because they were my heroes back then and they still are now.

You must have been especially proud to make your NRL debut for St George Illawarra?

They were our local team, our hometown team. I'm from the South Coast - Gerringong - and we had Rod Wishart [make first grade], Mick Cronin before him; an absolute legend at Parramatta. 

Roddy Wishart was one of my heroes growing up. Getting to represent the Red V just like he did, on behalf of Gerringong, is something that I'm really proud of. No matter where I went in the world, a Gerringong Lions T-shirt or something to do with Gerringong wasn't too far away from me.

I really believe it's the best place on earth, I truly do.

The Dragons had such a good roster in the mid-2000s. You made the finals three out of the five years you spent there. Did you feel like a premiership was on the cusp?

I did. We got so close there twice, we lost the game before the grand final on two occasions. Brownie [Nathan Brown], he was great for me as a coach. He developed me, not just on the field, but off the field as well.

He taught me a few really good mantras about life that I still use today in my work and clubs that I've got to play for. 

He was a big influence on me in my early career, same as Craig Young and another man called Allan Carroll; he found me and took me into the Steelers system. Craig and Brownie took me to the next level.

We probably should have done better than we did.

Ashton Sims

We got really close on a lot of occasions - without winning a comp. I was playing with some of my childhood heroes. Guys like Jason Ryles, Luke Bailey, Shaun Timmins, Trent Barrett. But especially Shaun - he was from Kiama and it felt like we were representing that Kiama-Gerringong area ... He's always going to be a good mate.

Unfortunately, we probably should have done better than we did in those years. We had an absolutely red-hot team.

Dragons fans are passionate and demanding. Did you feel pressure to succeed during that time?

Most certainly, but it was the intrinsic pressure that we put on ourselves. Luckily there wasn't social media but there were [online] fan pages.

I remember distinctly on a couple of occasions - this might sound like I'm a dinosaur - boys coming in with A4 pages of what the fan pages had been saying and they'd print it out and show us. Some of it you're just blown away.

Their passion is what drove us as rugby league players. We're a blue-collar sport. At the end of the day, they [the fans] work their fingers to the bone from Monday to Friday to watch us go out and perform well on a weekend.

There are wins and losses, but as long as they see you putting in the effort, the Dragons faithful are happy with that.

Why did you decide to move to the Broncos in 2008?

I was still on contract for a year and I probably stagnated in 2007. I started getting a couple injuries and probably wasn't playing great on certain occasions. Probably playing injured didn't help, but that was a badge of honour back then.

You were injured but you just kept playing because you didn't want to let your teammates down.

I had a meeting with Brownie and we sort of mutually agreed that it would probably be best if I find somewhere else.

It just felt like a couple of days later I had Wayne Bennett on the phone, which was a crazy thing for a 22-year-old - arguably the greatest rugby league coach of all time called me in my own house and asked me if I wanted to come and have a look around the Broncos set-up.

I'd be an absolute idiot if I didn't go up and at least give it the chance. I remember going up with my manager "Chimes" - Stevie Gillis.

Ashton Sims played for Brisbane in between stints at the Dragons and Cowboys.
Ashton Sims played for Brisbane in between stints at the Dragons and Cowboys. ©NRL Photos

It only took me about an hour to decide that was for me. I needed to prove myself, get out of the comfort of being in Wollongong and being able to go back to Gerringong every weekend or second weekend. If I was going to make a fist of my rugby league career I needed to be comfortable being uncomfortable.

In '08 Brisbane were beaten by Melbourne in a classic semi-final. I hate to bring it up, but it was after your error that Greg Inglis scored the winning try. I imagine you felt crushed?

Absolutely, yeah. I felt like the scum of the earth mate. That was probably one of the best, most consistent years I've had, and for it to finish like that, I did dwell on it for a while. But I used it as motivation for the rest of my career.

It sort of galvanised me into the player I became.

Unfortunately it was a really shitty error, and I'll put my hand up - I cost our team the game. I know a lot of teammates came up to me and said it was other things during the match, but with all due respect, it wasn't.

Ashton Sims left the Broncos with one big regret.
Ashton Sims left the Broncos with one big regret. ©NRL Photos

It was my error at the end of the game. Once you carry the ball for your team, you carry the hopes and dreams of your team in that situation.

I had a couple of dark days after it. Even having a couple of beers [now], you still think about that moment.

But I feel I've got a pretty good level of resilience on me, and part of being resilient is persevering through sheer adversities and never giving up. That's something I really hang my hat on.

That year ended a better way though - you played in the 2008 World Cup with Fiji when Jarryd Hayne was in great form. What was it like to represent your heritage?

It was one of the proudest moments of my career, for sure. I'm very passionate about representing my Fijian heritage. My mother's from a place called Ba in Fiji.

Being able to go back to Ba, not knowing the protocol I thought I'd just go up there.

But the elders in the Fiji squad said, 'No, we'll ring through and let them know that you're coming up'. I was like oh, OK.

I didn't realise that our family is a level of Fijian royalty, and especially up in Ba, so that was very emotional, very stirring. It just put my proud Fijian heritage into context ... Going through the town and meeting people who used to work with my grandfather in the sugar mills up in Ba was really special.

Ashton Sims with his kids after representing Fiji in 2017 at the World Cup.
Ashton Sims with his kids after representing Fiji in 2017 at the World Cup. ©NRL Photos

But that World Cup, that's what I needed after the way the season finished ... I needed something straight away and that something straight away was representing Fiji, playing with guys like Haynesy, Wessy Naiqama, Nick Bradley-Qalilawa, all these brilliant NRL players, a young Aku Uate. 

Even though we got our arse handed to us against Australia, it was really great to have some words with Petero Civoniceva post-game.

He was just letting us know that we're doing a great thing for Fijian rugby league, not just rugby league in general, for the kids on the island to look up and aspire to a rugby league team that is representing their nation very proudly.

Those words really resonated with me and that's why I always put my hand up for Fijian duties. I was lucky enough to play in three World Cups, captained Fiji on one occasion.

Those times pulling on the Fiji Bati jersey, I look very fondly on them and I cherish them very close to my heart.

In 2011 you moved to the Cowboys where you got to play with your brother Tariq. How special was that?

It was really good. I know I've probably said I've got three or four highlights in my life, but that was definitely one of them.

It's one thing to play with your really good mates, but when you play footy with your little brother, your flesh and blood, those backyard narratives come true ... All these childhood dreams were actually coming true and on the biggest stage.

I'll never forget running out with him and just thinking that it's your little brother, yeah, but we've got a job to do out there and we want to win. I remember talking to my parents the night before the game [with them] saying, 'Make sure you look after Tariq'.

But little did they know he was about two or three kilos bigger than me! Nah, he'll never be bigger than me, I was only joking.

It was really special, man, and probably the biggest one came a couple of years later in the 2013 World Cup [when Ashton, Korbin and Tariq played for Fiji].

Warrington forward Ashton Sims in 2016.
Warrington forward Ashton Sims in 2016. ©photosport.co.nz

Was it tough to leave the Cowboys for Warrington after making the semi-finals in 2014?

[Going to England] was something that I wanted to do. The Cowboys had a contract on the table and at the time it was only for one year, and I wanted a couple of years because that last year at the Cowboys was probably my best year in the NRL.

I was just thinking yay or nay, do I come back to a Sydney club? Warrington's coach Tony Smith, Brian Smith's brother, gave me a call. He spoke a language to me that I really resonated with.

I wanted to go over to England at some stage. Especially after that 2013 World Cup [in the UK], I absolutely loved my time over there. Once he started talking to me and ringing me every second day, it just sort of felt right.

After a little bit of deliberation with my wife, I agreed to go the Warrington Wolves. It was bittersweet because we [the Cowboys] were playing so good that year. We got up to the game before the grand final [qualifier] and lost to the Chooks.

Towards the end of that year, one of the Cowboys staff sat me down and asked me if I'd turn around and renege on my [Warrington] contract and sign a two-year deal with the Cowboys. I said then and there, look man, I can't.

I'm a man of my word, I really believe in the worth of a handshake. I know sometimes people joke about, 'Oh, well, you may as well write a contract on a bit of toilet paper', but I truly believe there's still some dignity about some men out there and I'm certainly one of them.

I don't break my values or anything like that for anyone. Once I gave Warrington my word it wouldn't have mattered, I was definitely coming.

The next year when [North Queensland] won the grand final, I can tell you right now I was cheering the hardest. Because I knew how hard everyone at that club had worked to get to that moment.

There was no one, especially in the north of England, cheering louder than me.

Do you have any favourite times from playing at Warrington?

I absolutely love the club. Getting off the plane, that first probably two weeks I didn't know what was going on.

I went over there with my wife, three young kids, but it only took two weeks for us to realise we were surrounded by really good people.

I love having banter with the English, that Pommy kind of rivalry - we're the convicts, they're the upper-class snobs. But I've got to say, some of the best people I've met in my life are from England.

I love having banter with the English, that Pommy kind of rivalry.

Ashton Sims

The community at Warrington just embraced me with open arms, and when you get treated like that, you tend to play your best football and be the best version of yourself on and off the field.

Some of my greatest memories of my rugby league career are some of my lowlights over in Warrington.

We lost a very tight Challenge Cup final but I got to play at Wembley, and later on in 2016 I got to run on Old Trafford and play in a grand final that we narrowly lost to Wigan.

But the history of those grounds, people like Roy Keane and David Beckham and Sir Bobby Robson were on Old Trafford, and I can say I've played on the same ground as some of the greatest sportsmen of all time.

I've always been a big believer in respecting the jersey and respecting the game ... I've always been a student of the game, I've never stopped trying to learn, I always respected the people that come before, I wanted to know the history of the clubs I was at, I wanted to know the history of the game. That's why I'm a bit of a rugby league nerd.

You finished your career with the Toronto Wolfpack. It must be cool to see them in Super League now with Sonny Bill Williams playing there?

It's one of those ones where I didn't know what to think when Brian Noble, a great rugby league coach in the north of England and a really good friend of mine who coached Bradford, Wigan and the Great Britain Lions on many occasions, came up to me after a Challenge Cup game and asked me about the Toronto Wolfpack.

I didn't really know how to take it. I was thinking it sounds a little bit "Mickey Mouse" to me. But once I actually sat down and had a chat with him and had a chat to our owner David Argyle - who was very much a mentor to me in the end, he had some great philosophies on life and business, ones that I take forward with me - once they sold me their part, I was all in.

Ashton Sims during his Toronto Wolfpack stint in 2018.
Ashton Sims during his Toronto Wolfpack stint in 2018. ©photosport.co.nz

I knew that two-year [Wolfpack contract] would take me to about 34 years old and that would probably be the end, so I put everything I could into those two years and we reaped the benefit of a Super League promotion.

Honestly, there's no one prouder than me watching the Wolfpack run out in Super League games, because I know the hard work and dedication it took to get there.

Lastly, tell us about your transition to life after footy and what you're doing now.

I'm one of the real lucky ones. I did some study around the end of my career especially around mental health, and did some anti-bullying campaign ambassador [work] over in England.

An ex-teammate and NRL player Dan Hunt, who is the co-founder and CEO of The Mental Health Movement who I'm working with at the moment, he got in touch with me and asked me if I'd be interested in coming back and working with him and his company.

To be honest mate, I gave it a week to have a think about it, but I knew the answer before I had to take that week to think about it.

I was so, so lucky to follow a childhood dream as a professional rugby league player and that was a real passion of mine, but another passion of mine was helping people.

I really prided myself on being that guy that if my teammates - and friends in general - were going through some troubles off the field, they knew they could come to me and I could help work it out with them.

It wasn't a role I asked to do ... some people say I've just got that personality.

So when [Dan] offered me a role as a facilitator and consultant at The Mental Health Movement, I absolutely jumped to it.

Ashton Sims passes for the Cowboys.
Ashton Sims passes for the Cowboys. ©NRL Photos

What we do is we go around Australia creating and developing mentally healthy and supportive workplaces.

We do that through our mental health blueprint which is education, awareness, training and resources. I truly believe that everyone's got a mental health.

The easiest way to put it is if you've got a brain in your head, you've got a mental health, and we really need to be proactive and accountable in looking after it and managing it, because the better we manage our mental health, the better we manage ourselves.

 

For urgent assistance please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24 hour counselling, information and referrals) or the Beyond Blue Support Service 1300 22 4636.