‘I wish I could start all over again’: The real story of Payne Haas

Here he is! Payne Haas! Rugby league’s biggest, baddest man raising NR-Hell!

The man mountain who obeys the Word of Islam but abuses coppers on drunken rampages; who shoves poor little halfbacks in the head, right in front of members of the public hiding behind pot plants with mobile phones at the ready; who plays prop but wants halfback money, demanding millions of dollars and just as many get-out clauses and, if he doesn’t get it, well, you can release him immediately thank you very much Brisbane Broncos.

Boo! Payne Haas! Boooooooooo!

NSW and Brisbane enforcer Payne Haas has had plenty on his plate of late.Credit:Jessica Hromas

Then there’s Payne Haas, the big teddy bear with the soft voice and perfect manners who ends each sentence with a nervous chuckle; who plays injured, who plays needled up, who refuses to leave the field when the medicos say; who has endured more personal trauma than most of us will ever know; who was told one night two years ago that his quadriplegic brother Chace was about to die but still played against Canberra, then rushed to the hospital to watch the life support get turned off before returning to the field just weeks later; who parks all the drama happening in his life to one side and steps out for the Broncos, the Blues, the Kangaroos, and duly reminds all concerned why he’s the best prop in the game.

If only life was as simple as playing football.

“In my mind, I’m bulletproof on the field,” Haas says. “I’m not bringing that off-field stuff around the boys. I pride myself on not being that person. My footy can take care of itself – but I have some demons when I come off the field. Sometimes I drift away. I won’t lie. We’re all human. I do drift away, as people have seen.”

He finishes the sentence with a chuckle then says one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard an athlete admit, especially one who’s only 22: “I wish I could start my career all over again.”

Haas is sitting in front of me on a cold, wet Saturday morning in Newcastle. The Broncos beat the Knights two nights earlier, but he’s stayed behind. Haas and his family lived in Woodberry in the lower Hunter Valley before moving to the Gold Coast when Payne was 13, but he’s still got family here. He’ll attend a game in which his relatives are playing at Glendale that afternoon, then a cousin’s birthday party that night.

The interview was supposed to take place in Brisbane but, after the sudden change in plans, he shot me the following text: “Hi brother, I’m staying in Newcastle for the weekend sorry for the late notice. Do you just want to meet down here [in Newcastle]? I’ll pay for your flights for what you’ve paid.”

‘He’s different. Because it’s Payne Haas. He’ll just get on with it.’

The thought of a player offering to cover a reporter’s flights is unheard of – for the record, the Herald didn’t accept and never would – and certainly at odds with the image of a money-hungry mercenary holding his club to ransom.

Our interview in Newcastle happened a week before Haas shocked the game – and especially the Broncos – when he asked for an immediate release from his contract with two years remaining after the club rejected an upgraded deal that would’ve seen Haas making more than $1 million a season.

He gave no indication that he wanted to leave. He said he was relishing the chance to play alongside halfback Adam Reynolds and even compared the fatherly influence of Kevin Walters to former coach Wayne Bennett, who had signed an 18-year-old Haas to the Broncos on a six-year deal.

“I just feel like I’m clickbait,” Haas told me. “You can’t believe everything you read. When it comes from my mouth, that’s when you’ll know it’s true.”

The problem is Haas’ mouth isn’t revealing much at all. He’s refused to discuss his contract situation in detail since coming into the NSW camp in preparation for State of Origin I at Accor Stadium on Wednesday night. He’s made vague references about his motives, about looking after his one-year-old daughter and partner, about playing finals footy consistently, but that’s about it.

Payne Haas in action during the Broncos’ win over Newcastle last month – the final match before the prop shocked the league world by asking for an immediate release from Brisbane.Credit:Getty

The Broncos and Haas put the issue to bed – for now – when they released a statement on Tuesday night announcing they would put talks off until the end of the season, but it’s far from resolved.

There’s an argument that Haas is simply aggrieved about the size of the contract struck by his former managers Chris and Gavin Orr and wants to make up lost money. (Haas and the Orrs are currently suing each other for damages in the Brisbane Supreme Court). There’s also a belief that Sonny Bill Williams and, by extension, his manager Khoder Nasser, are pulling the strings in the background.

I sense Haas is stronger and smarter than people understand. He’s his own man who has taken the same singular mindset into contract negotiations that he takes onto the field. He comes from a family of 10 children, who struggled financially, and now wants every dollar he can get.

Haas was targeted by Broncos fans during last week’s match against the Titans.Credit:Getty

What’s certain is that Haas didn’t anticipate the subsequent blowback from the club’s cranky supporters when he threatened to walk out just days before the match against the Titans at Suncorp Stadium.

In the dressing-room before kick-off, Walters pulled Haas aside and warned him about the shitstorm brewing outside.

“You right, mate?” Walters asked. “Don’t listen to the crowd when you get out there.”

Haas gave the usual response when he wants to divert attention from himself. “I’m all good.”

Sure enough, Haas was greeted by a chorus of boos each time he came near the ball and later admitted he was “rattled”. It was a rare concession: Haas is one of those athletes who finds peace in the mayhem on the field. He compartmentalises training, playing, even the searing pain in the AC joint in his shoulder he’s carried for a month, and gets on with it.

“I knew he was going to get booed, but he just blocked it all out,” Walters says. “He’s tough and physical on the field, but also a very strong young fella off it. He’s had so much going on in his life for a long time. So much. Saying it’s ‘all good’ and it actually being ‘all good’ are two separate things but that’s Payne. He’s a machine: he just rolls out and does his job.”

NSW coach Brad Fittler knows of Haas’ resilience, too. The Blues coach has a strict policy about not picking players consumed with contract troubles. “But he’s different,” Fittler says. “Because it’s Payne Haas. He’ll just get on with it.”

Haas isn’t just wrestling with his present but his past, like that dreadful time in August 2020 when his father called him to tell him his brother, Chace, who was one year older than Payne, was fighting for life in a Gold Coast hospital.

The Broncos told Haas he didn’t have to play against Canberra but they’d just sacked coach Anthony Seibold and were rooted to the bottom of the ladder so, the way Haas figured, he had no choice but to play. Then he flew home, said goodbye to his brother and watched as doctors turned off the life support.

Payne Haas with his older brother Chace Haas throughout their teens.Credit:NRL Photos

“That pain hurt me a lot,” he says. “I had some demons as a kid that I won’t talk about, but that hurt the most. When I look back now, I handled it the wrong way. I didn’t know what to do; he was my best mate.”

Haas says his faith has helped him through troubled times even if its requirements are difficult to slot into the schedule of professional athlete. “I get up around 5am, then I wash myself, then I pray five times throughout the day,” he explains. “I’ve read the Koran once and every day during Ramadan.”

Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t convert to Islam in 2019 on the advice of Williams but his older brother, Jonah, who became a Muslim some years beforehand. “I saw what my brother was doing and realised that was something I needed in my life,” Haas said. “Obviously, I’ve had some bumps in the road. We’re not perfect as people. Islam is a way of life. It doesn’t come straight away; it comes in small steps.”

Those “bumps” have twice involved police, although the latest indiscretion, in which he pushed drunken teammate Albert Kelly’s head, didn’t warrant a headline let alone a one-match suspension and $10,000 fine from the NRL. “I’m not one to whinge but I thought that was rubbish,” Haas says of the suspension. “People were saying I was drinking. I had been at a barbecue with my family. I was just defending myself.”

Walters backed Haas publicly then and is desperate to retain him now. The question is whether Haas is worth more than $1 million a season. There’s an argument that props don’t deserve that much of a club’s salary cap.

Paas is one of the hardest working players in the game. He doesn’t rely on his size. But if there’s one knock on his game, it’s that he doesn’t offload or pass enough. He bristles at the suggestion.

“I’m developing my pass more,” he says. “I am offloading more. I dunno. Someone says one thing and then someone runs with it. I’ve thrown more offloads now than I did last year. If someone writes something people run with it. They don’t base it on facts. I’ve offloaded the most of anyone in our team.”

According to Champion Data, he averages 1.2 offloads a match behind teammates Tom Flegler (1.83) and Pat Carrigan (1.63).

“We’re trying to develop his skills more here,” Walters says. “He’s a great metre-eater, and he has a nice pass, a nice offload. We’re trying to get some options in his game, like a short pass. He’s still only 22. He’s not a 30-year-old prop. But he’s quite smart about his football. He’s no dumbo.”

Payne Haas in Sydney this week.Credit:Jessica Hromas

If there’s one thing I took away from our interview, it’s that Haas is no fool, something confirmed by Broncos head of football Ben Ikin.

“He’s highly intelligent,” Ikin says. “But he won’t let anyone see it. He’s the president of our book club.”

The Broncos have a book club?

“And I’m the president,” Haas says, cracking up. “Kotoni Staggs is the vice-president. It’s with a few of the younger boys. It’s good because it helps us build that connection with the younger players.”

One of the books reviewed was Atomic Habits, the international bestseller from behavioural science expert James Clear. One passage that’s stood out for the learned members of the Broncos Book Club relates to bamboo and how it takes five years to grow underground before shooting 90 feet into the air within six weeks.

“It’s like your career,” Haas says. “You work hard undercover, being quiet, then suddenly you can shoot up. Sometimes young people want everything just like that. They want it all straight away. They want all the fame and fortune. Sometimes, you have to wait.”

Whether you approve or not, Payne Haas reckons his time is now. He can’t wait any longer.

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