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Why rugby league's biggest nerd is the man to put the magic back in the Broncos

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From State of Origin prodigy to fully-fledged rugby league nerd, Ben Ikin has spent his whole life getting ready for the thankless task that he’s just accepted – putting the magic back in the Brisbane Broncos. Michael Blucher is backing him to succeed.

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A little known fun fact – the knee injury that Ben Ikin suffered in 2001, and eventually brought the curtain down on his playing days, may well have been the best thing to ever happen to him.

At least in terms of his post football career.

Sidelined for the entire season and beyond, the then 24 year-old was reduced to doing “promo work” which, more often than not, had him talking to school kids about the virtues of playing Rugby League.

Sick of telling them about the hardest player he’d ever had to tackle, or the fastest runner he’d encountered, Ikin, naturally curious, started reading. And reading. And reading.

Over the course of the next few years, he devoured practically every business bible ever penned – Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Built to Last, Jack Welch’s book Winning, The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, Leading Change by John Kotter – the list was endless. He even delved into the more spiritual offerings, the jottings of cerebral types like Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer – every spare hour was spent ingesting himself with knowledge and wisdom.

Within the space of 24 or so months, Ikin transformed from one-time uncertain, unkempt Palm Beach Currumbin rough-head, to a walking, talking, non-playing sage.

Some 19 years on, here he is today, one of the sharpest minds and clearest thinkers in Australian sport. Underestimate him at your own peril.

Ikin’s early notoriety of course stemmed from his shock inclusion in the Queensland State of Origin team at the ripe old age of 18.

That news was met with disbelief, even from “Big Al Ikin”, his most ardent supporter.

“Is there another Ben Ikin playing footy on the Gold Coast?” his father asked in all seriousness., when he heard on local radio that somebody by that name had been picked to play for the Maroons in the 1995 series.

“No Dad, it’s me,” Ben assured him. “Holy shit,” was all his father could muster on the phone.

Ikin went on to feature in 17 Origin matches, 150 first grade NRL games and a couple of Test matches against the mighty PNG in 1998 – a time when “clearly everybody else, bar the canteen operator at North Sydney oval must have been injured”, he says, only half-joking

At one level, it’s surprising that Ikin, for all his natural talent, played at the top level for as long as he did.

In the simple but effective personality profiling model of psychologist Phil Jauncey, Ikin is a “feeler thinker”, polar opposite to the flint hard “enforcers” and instinctive, unstructured “mozzies” that typically occupy Rugby League’s playing ranks.

It’s a mindset that makes performing on the public stage diabolically difficult, because as the descriptor pretty clearly suggests, you “think and feel” deeply – you’re genuinely concerned how others perceive you.

Early in his playing career, Ikin struggled with self-doubt. He was sensitive to the mildest of criticism, no more so when it was dished out by his future father-in-law, Wayne Bennett.

During one unflattering Monday review, the super coach asked him incredulously: “Were you even playing in this match?”

Then one night at the Broncos League Club, back in the days the players mingled post-match with the public, came a seminal moment.

Strolling around the function room after a pretty handy performance that afternoon, Ikin’s sense of self was further bolstered by a bloke at the bar telling him he was “an absolute legend”.

However, no more than two minutes later, at the other end of the bar, another half-cut punter told Ikin he was a complete dud – “shouldn’t even be playing first grade.”

Days after that came the dawning of his personal mantra – or at least one of them – “what you think of me is none of my business”.

He’s carried it closely since then. It’s what’s helped him survive and then thrive for 10 years in the snake pit that is Fox Sports. And it is a snake pit. Yet this week, Ikin left Fox Studios with an untold number of admirers and, even more remarkably, not a single enemy,

Over the past few years, courtesy of his marriage to Wayne Bennett’s daughter, Beth, Ikin has found himself an unwilling participant in one of the game’s most public and bitter feuds – the barney between the Brisbane Broncos and his now estranged father-in-law.

The prising of the doyen coach out of the Red Hill bunker, coupled with the very public split with Trish, Bennett’s wife of 40-something years, continues to fester.

Ikin, like Trish herself, has always been too dignified to speak publicly about the matter, but there’s no question the splitting of the sheets and the subsequent pillow fight has brought untold pressure on the entire family.

At the peak of the drama, Ikin even found himself being stalked by news photographers. “What sort of photo are they hoping to get of me?” he once asked. “Are they hoping to catch me standing outside my house in the morning without my dressing gown tied up?”

Ben Ikin says there’s no bigger nerd in the world than Ben Ikin.

One day in Sydney, a snapper spent a full seven hours, waiting at the entrance of the Fox Studios carpark, ready to capture the NRL 360 host as he arrived at work. Clearly nobody had told the photographer that when Ikin is in Sydney, he stays in the apartment block straight across the road, and walks the 65 metres to work.

“I felt really bad for the bloke,” Ikin admitted. ”I wanted to take him out a sandwich and coffee but I was told not to.” There it is again – thinker feeler.

Since retiring from the game, Ikin has fulfilled a whole range of different roles, many within the game, but also some heady senior executive functions.

Early in his retirement, he worked briefly as the Broncos’ “player welfare manager”, farming out the untold depth of dollars that the NRL spends on nurturing its young stars, and guiding them in the ways of the world.

He quickly saw the flaw in that model. “Our game is basically made up of two types,” he says. “There’s those who need help but aren’t interested, and then there’s those who fully appreciate all the educational opportunities – but they don’t need help. They’ve already got stuff sorted.

“Besides, given the choice between a bloke in a suit with a PowerPoint presentation and the image of a team-mate, skulling a jug of beer while doing a headstand, where do you think they’re going to take their lead? Young footballers learn in the shed, not in a classroom.“

Ikin has also worked in the role of commercial manager at the Gold Coast Titans – more a favour to his friend Michael Searle than a serious career stepping stone. He was bored quickly. He’s since sat on numerous boards – the Cowboys, the Broncos Leagues Club, and up until this week, the QRL.

He’s applied the same practical and lucid thinking to all of them, his ability to distinguish between the emotional and rational something of an uncommon attribute in sport.

In his new role as football manager at the Broncos, Ikin will be responsible for all of the club’s recruitment and roster management. Only four months ago, he applied for but was overlooked for the role of CEO. Admirably, the successful candidate, Dave Donaghy, had the ego-strength and wisdom to re-engage with him.

How’s Ikin going to go in this new role? Ask the question again in four years. Realistically, it’ll be that long before we have an accurate gauge of his contribution and in turn, the club’s progress. Anybody who thinks it will be sooner, I’d suggest doesn’t fully understand the intricacy of high performance, of succession planning, of talent pipelines, bench-strength and perhaps most importantly, club culture.

Ikin does. Intimately. He also understands the psyche of the people who play, coach, administer and support the game of Rugby League. He’s aware that some would eat their own young if it meant an extra two premiership points. That’s what’s makes the game great, and that’s what holds it back. Passion and myopia.

Perhaps Ikin’s greatest asset is his thoroughness – his unerring attention to detail. On his pathway to television, he sat in his home office for hundreds if not thousands of hours, filming and reviewing his performance in front of a video camera.

Nothing particularly unusual about that. All the true professionals do it – no different to practicing goal kicking or hitting tackle bags for three hours. But in a role like football manager of a struggling club, it will be fundamentally important.

Ikin is under no illusion about the size of the mountain the Broncos have to climb in the coming years. There’s plenty of work to do, but he’s not there as Kev Walters saviour – he’s got far too much respect for the head coach to ever think that. He’s there to help, to work with Walters and all the other staff to turn the club around.

Given his profile, there’s every chance he’ll join Walters in the harsh glare of the public spotlight. Ikin talks insightfully about the notion of “self-righteous indignation” – our modern-day penchant for being angry and offended by anything we like, at any time.

There are plenty of “self-righteous indignants” in Broncos land at present, including many of the club’s “old guard” – his former teammates.

On that level, in the coming years he’s expecting a lot of gratuitous commentary, and just as much heavy criticism around his input and contribution to the club.

But that doesn’t worry him – not in the slightest.

Because what people think of Ben Ikin is no longer any of his business.

 

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