IN BRETT Stewart's first one-on-one interview in nearly three years the NSW Origin fullback discusses that false sexual assault allegation, his knee injury and the bitter feud with NRL CEO David Gallop.
Buzz: I've been trying to stick this tape recorder in front of you for 12 months. How tough have the last few years been?
Stewart: Definitely the toughest of my life, no doubt about that. Put it this way, I don't want any harder years. I leaned on family and found out who my friends were. Obviously Des (Hasler) is a great friend and stayed very loyal to me. My family was great. Glenn and I are very, very close. My mum and dad too supported me and got me through a lot.
Even though you knew you were innocent, did you ever think maybe the jury could get it wrong and you'd finish up behind bars in jail?
Absolutely. That was my biggest fear. I knew I was innocent but my fate was in the hands of 12 jurors. If they didn't see it for what it was, yeah, I would have been sent to jail. It could easily have happened. I think about it all the time and how unjust it would be if jurors got it wrong. Not just my case but anyone else.
Did you ever think: is football worth it? Being in the spotlight and having your name linked to a sexual assault case?
Did you think about quitting, although I know you needed your football earnings for the legal fees?
Financially I couldn't give it away. It wasn't just the allegations that got me down. The knee injury in 2009 wrecked me. I was using football as a bit of an out. A bit of an escape from the other stuff that was happening. I played for a couple of weeks in 2009 before I got hurt and needed surgery and was sidelined for a year. I was worried about my contract and my future and the court case. That's where Des stepped in. He rang and invited me around to his house for a beer. He explained he wanted me there long term. That I'd get over the injury and eventually come back. It was a big load off my shoulders.
You seemed pretty low. Did you suffer from depression?
It wasn't medically diagnosed but I certainly wasn't myself. I went into my shell. You had good days and bad days. It was like an emotional rollercoaster. I'm still not the person I used to be, although I'm getting better. But at the time when I had to tell my mum and dad about the allegations, it was the worst.
Okay, David Gallop.
I went on the record at the time saying he was wrong to suspend you before you'd been to court. Do you feel better about Gallop now?
No, not at all, although I've said what I wanted to say to him.
What did you say, that he owes you an apology?
I'll keep that between him and me. It hasn't been spoken about this year but I haven't forgotten that he turned his back on me when I needed his support most.
As the face of the game, I thought you'd done enough to get his support too.
Yes. What happened to the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise? There was none of that. It would have been good.
So you haven't forgiven him?
It's past that now.
What about your galloping action when you broke the try-scoring record at Manly. How long had you planned that for?
I don't even know if it was aimed at him. I had a horse racing that week.
Gallery: NSW Origin squad
C'mon, mate ... he seems to think it's all sweet now after you shook hands in the dressing sheds at Cronulla a few weeks ago.
That's not right, really. It's had a lot of publicity and it really snowballed, even though I've never been quoted on it. I've said to his face what I had to say and it's time to move on.
A lot of people are saying you're coming out of your shell and are ready to move on. Did that just happen overnight?
Definitely not. I'm not as confident as I used to be.
You speak a lot about Des Hasler. With respect to Geoff Toovey, do you miss having Des at Manly now?
I don't want to take anything away from Tooves because he's doing a great job. But Des and I had a very close friendship. We still do. We talk occasionally. I guess life goes on. It's still funny seeing him in the blue and white and not our colours.
Would you agree Manly stuffed it up by letting him go?
I don't know. There are two sides to every story. Rugby league is a business and we all have to do our best.
How close are you and Glenn. I'll never forget the Battle of Brookvale against the Storm last year when you ran all that way to help him in the fight with Adam Blair. Would you do that again?
Yes, I probably would. We're pretty tight and he'd do the same for me. I'd like to think he would anyway. It was just instinct to get in and help him. Any close brothers would have a good understanding of what I'm talking about.
I thought you should have got four weeks but escaped with one week. It was probably payback for wrongfully suspending you in 2009.
I'd rather have not got the four weeks in the first place but as I said, I'll always be there to help my brother out.
What about your future at Manly? There was a report the other day you had all but signed a new contract with the Sea Eagles.
I don't know where that came from because it's not right.
But you obviously want to stay?
Of course I don't want to go anywhere. I'd like to finish my career at Manly. I debuted in 2003, so it's been nine years. My brother and I have made it our home. We've got a really good bunch of blokes. Other things like the training staff. It's awesome. They put the players first. We've also got a lot of youth coming through. We've had some good negotiations but nothing has been finalised. I'll get this Origin out of the way and hopefully we can sit down after that and work something out.
It's a great camaraderie. No one wants to leave.
It's seriously a great culture. Eight or nine of us have been there for eight or nine years now. At the end of the day, money isn't everything.
So you'd take a pay cut to stay?
For sure I would. I assume some of the other guys have too. I don't know what they earn and it's not my business. But the talk around town is that they could have got more at other clubs.
How's it feel to be back in Origin?
It's unreal. I haven't been here since 2008. We lost that series as well but it's good to be amongst the boys again. I'm sharing a room with Jarryd Hayne. He's pretty cruisy and relaxed. And my brother is here too, so I'm really enjoying the experience.
Were you confident about selection being up against Hayne, Josh Dugan and Anthony Minichiello?
I wasn't confident. Those names you just mentioned, they've all been in great form. That's healthy to have around Origin time. It brings the best out of each individual.
What about Billy Slater? You've got a fair record against him.
I thoroughly enjoy it. At the moment you'd have to say he's probably the best player in the world. I'm looking forward to the challenge. It's like competing with the other guys for the NSW jersey. Playing against Slater brings the best out of you.