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Legend Q&A: Alan Tongue

Alan Tongue defied those who claimed he was too small to be an NRL forward by carving a 220-game career built on toughness, courage and determination.

A one-club player for the Raiders, the 87kg lock or hooker led from the front with an uncompromising work ethic, highlighted when he broke the regular season record for most tackles in 2006 with 1087.

The red-headed country boy debuted as a teenager in 2000 and retired in 2011. He has since made a positive community impact as an NRL Ambassador as the face of the Voice Against Violence program.

Legend Q&A: Alan Tongue

Was footy always a focus growing up in Tamworth?

It was. Probably throughout my primary school and high school years it was the main focus. Although growing up with a family property - and my dad and my two brothers are back home on the land - farming was a big part of our life too.

Did you have a dream to play professional footy?

From a young age I loved rugby league. I always talk to people [and they say] when I was a young kid I had a footy in my hand everywhere I went. I absolutely lived and breathed the game.

I suppose the dream didn't really become a reality until the back-end of high school when some interest came from some clubs. Then it was something that really drove me in the last few years of my schooling.

How did your signing with the Raiders happen?

I was on a scholarship at the Broncos in year 10, 11 and 12. Farrer High School had a connection with the Broncos and we used to do pre-season camps and different things up there. It was a really special time and important time in my development to be able to go and get that a couple of times a year.

It wasn't until the end of high school - it was an Aussie Schoolboys tour at the end of year 12, 1998 - [that] the Raiders asked. I sort of had to weigh up a couple of things, whether I would go to a couple of clubs. I just connected really well with Canberra.

A lot of people try and say it's because I didn't want to go to the Broncos because I mightn't have been able to get into their system or whatever and it wasn't that case at all.

When I came down to Canberra, just meeting the players, we went back to one of the local hotels and it was cook your own steak and different things after the game. It just felt like a big country town ... I'd played with a few of the guys in the Aussie schoolboy team as well that were all coming to the Raiders next year.

In an old article reflecting on your NRL debut, some teammates recalled you tearing into training from the start. Did you always have that tenacity?

Some people would often say that I went too hard at training or I'd go and probably over-train and different things too. But I just knew that I had one crack at this opportunity and I just never wanted to walk away from the training field or the playing field knowing that I just hadn't given it my all.

I made a lot of sacrifices to move away from home to chase a dream and a lot of people had invested in me. I just didn't want to let my teammates down, I just didn't want to let myself down and I didn't want to let my family and community down. That was my mentality from the day that I got here until the day that I retired. 

Alan Tongue farewells the Raiders faithful in 2011.
Alan Tongue farewells the Raiders faithful in 2011.

You were light for a forward but had the heart of a lion. Did you ever get told you were too small to make it?

It even started before the NRL that people would question the size and also my ability. I'll be honest with myself too, I definitely wasn't the most skilful, I definitely wasn't the quickest guy. And I had to work really hard on my strength and my speed and agility and stuff like that and I built my skills.

Covering that position of dummy-half was something that really got me into the side at the end of the day ... Size is what it is. I was determined and I think if you've got that desire and determination, that's worth 10 kilos alone. That's what I keep telling myself anyway.

Did being smaller force you to hone your tackling technique?

Absolutely. I think when I've reflected now on my time, going through it you probably think, 'I wish I was just a bit quicker, a bit stronger, a bit faster' - whatever it is. But now I look back on it and I think it was a real blessing that I didn't have those physical attributes, because it made me really work hard, look at my game [and] look at other people's games to see how I could incorporate it into my own.

I had to really evolve my game throughout. I came down as a lock forward, playing a bit in the second row, but I had to play dummy-half where I'd never played that through my whole junior career. I ended up finishing my career in the NRL at No.9.

So it made me really work extra hard on my game and I think that's really benefitted me, not only during my footy days but also afterwards as well.

Tongue was a cult figure in the national capital.
Tongue was a cult figure in the national capital.

2008 was a great year for you, winning the Dally M Captain of the Year and Lock of the Year awards while Canberra made the finals. What do you remember from that campaign?

I'd just got the captaincy in 2007 and we had a really light-on roster and we were at a rebuilding stage. There was no other way you could look at it. [In the previous years] we'd lost the likes of Simon Woolford, Jason Croker, Luke Davico, Adam Mogg, Michael Hodgson, Ian Hindmarsh, Clinton Schifcofske - who was our captain at the time. All of sudden this huge amount of experience went and we only picked up one or two guys afterwards.

It was a really challenging year, 2007, but I was proud of the club. Nobody worked harder in terms of footy. We had a new coach in Neil Henry and I think we didn't see the fruits of that hard work and labour until 2008 when things started to click.

That was really, really important for us. We had some challenges off the field, too ... And I'll just add there too that Neil Henry had decided that at the end of 2008 he was going to leave to go to the Cowboys.

We had a huge amount of adversity and we absolutely played our hearts out. So I don't look back on my achievements as in the Dally M awards, but I was just super proud of club and the players that I played alongside that year.

Was there ever a time that you considered leaving Canberra? You only had six finals games in 11 seasons - was that tough?

Any footballer will tell you they want to be playing finals footy at the end of the year, so that was always a motivation.

But I enjoyed the community, I enjoyed the club and I really only wanted to play for the Raiders. There were some other options throughout my career and there were some times when I was told that I could explore to go elsewhere ... At the end of one year in particular I got re-signed for another three years, but only been told the year before that I could probably look elsewhere.

It worked out and I was grateful that I was able to stay at the one club and I wanted to stay at the one club. Obviously I didn't get to win a premiership - that was the only thing I wanted to do, that was my main motivating factor - but I didn't get there. But I'm still proud of being able to say that I only played for the Canberra Raiders.

Match Highlights: Raiders v Rabbitohs

Did you feel hard done by that you never got picked for NSW? Your game seemed tailor-made for State of Origin...

I really, really wanted to test myself in that arena. Like most footy-mad kids at a young age, you just can't wait for State of Origin to come on the TV. You just have those crazy childhood memories watching the game and looking back on it.

I just really wanted to test myself in that arena. You see players just go to the next level and you see some players that get found out, too. It didn't come about and that's part of the story now. You can work your backside off and you can put your heart and soul into everything and have these dreams, but it doesn't always come off.

It doesn't mean you give up, it means you just keep chipping away. I can't do anything about that period but I would have loved that challenge.

I imagine you would have been stoked to represent Country?

Yep. It was a special period for me, being a real country boy, thinking of the bush footy and the long trips that we used to have to do to have a game of footy. To be able to represent that still meant a huge amount to me. 

We got beaten [by City in 2009] but it was still a really important moment in my career, I had a lot of family there to come and watch. It was an experience that I cherish.

You retired relatively young. Why?

The last two years [of my career] in particular I'd sort of been carrying injuries and I carried them right throughout the year. I'd get patched up and fixed up at the end of the year and battle through pre-season. 

I'd just had some challenges with injuries and it was probably letting my footy down, too. I always took a lot of pride in my performance and being the captain of the club. And when you weren't playing to the ability that you know was the standard that you set for yourself... I just told myself that the 2011 season was going to be the end of it.

To be fair, there were a lot of people that didn't think I'd play one game and I was turning 31 at the end of that year, so I felt like I'd given it everything that I could.

When I did retire, and it wasn't the way that I wanted to go out with where we sat on the ladder, I walked away knowing I did absolutely everything I could for the club to be as successful as it could be even though we were disappointed with some of the years that we had.

Alan Tongue speaks at a Voice Agaiinst Violence workshop in 2019.
Alan Tongue speaks at a Voice Agaiinst Violence workshop in 2019.

You're achieving wonderful things in the community now. Can you detail what you've been up to?

I'm employed full-time by the NRL as of this year. I've been doing a lot of my own mentoring programs and domestic violence work throughout Canberra. Previously to that I worked in juvenile justice and in and around different opportunities in Canberra that I took on when I first retired.

For the last number of years, I've been a part of the NRL's Voice Against Violence program, an education and awareness program on the prevention of violence towards women. That's been a real focus of mine, being able to connect with rugby league clubs and share this message of 'the culture's in our hands around where we take it from here'. 

And really trying to build strong football clubs and strong communities. It's been an amazing experience to still be a part of the game but to provide [education on] a really important social issue. We're not only delivering that program right across Australia but we're delivering it in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand and hopefully in Samoa in the not-too-distant future.