Maroons guru of ‘Ubuntu’ leaves legacy driving Cotter

Joel Gould |

Queensland’s Reuben Cotter (right) credits mind coach Hugh van Cuylenburg for the side’s success.
Queensland’s Reuben Cotter (right) credits mind coach Hugh van Cuylenburg for the side’s success.

Queensland’s secret weapon Hugh van Cuylenburg isn’t present physically in the Maroons’ camp this year, but he is there in spirit with all of the players in an inspirational way.

The mental strength coach and founder of The Resilience Project was a key figure in the two series wins in 2022 and 2023 under coach Billy Slater.

“Hugh just had a huge effect on the whole group,” Maroons forward Reuben Cotter said.

“He’s such a charismatic person and even though he’s not a Queenslander, it sort of felt like he was a Queenslander.”

For family reasons Melbourne-based van Cuylenburg can’t be there with the Maroons this year. In 2023 he introduced the Maroons to the Zulu word “Ubuntu” which in a nutshell means “I am because we are”.

It is a philosophy that places the wellbeing of the collective ahead of the individual, and reinforces that a team goal can only be attained through selfless acts.

In the comeback 26-18 win in game one of the 2023 series in Adelaide, starting second-rower Tom Gilbert dislocated his shoulder in the 19th minute and did not return. 

Cotter switched from prop to play in a position he had never played and starred in an 80-minute display of sheer guts and quality.

Second-rower David Fifita was out of action late in the first half with concussion.

Murray Taulagi was also concussed and did not finish the match. His fellow winger Selwyn Cobbo limped off with a hip injury in the 68th minute.

Prop Tom Flegler was sin-binned with the Maroons trailing 18-16 late in the game. While he was off the field, the Queenslanders scored two tries to steal the match.

“Johnathan Thurston told me after the game that with five minutes to go the Maroons players all started screaming Ubuntu on the ground,” van Cuylenburg told AAP.

“That’s facing adversity … and rallying by stepping up in that moment. That’s also resilience.

“I am from Melbourne and Billy Slater caught up with me in February of 2022 and said he’d love me to be part of Maroons camp. I said I was keen so long as the coach was keen. He said, ‘I am the coach’. 

“My job was to pick a theme and sell that theme into the camp and drive it throughout the series. 

“Last year we talked about Ubuntu, which basically translates as ‘I am because we are’, meaning it is is not just about me. They live and breathe this as Queensland State of Origin players anyway, but it is all about making the person next to you as good as they can be.” 

Harry Grant.
Queensland rake Harry Grant (centre) arrives at training with gratitude for his position in life. (Dave Hunt/AAP PHOTOS)

Cotter, who won the Wally Lewis Medal as player of the series last year, said van Cuylenburg’s teachings were still front and centre. 

“The majority of the group have been together over the last couple of years, so it’s something we’ll try and build on with those connections,” he said.

“It is all about that togetherness and caring for your mate. It’s an ‘I am because we are’ mentality. It is special.”

In 2022 the theme in Maroons camp centred on gratitude. Van Cuylenburg was formerly a primary school teacher, who at one stage taught in India.

His experiences partly explain why he set up The Resilience Project, an organisation that provides preventative strategies for young people, so that when adversity strikes they have tools and strategies to help them bounce back.

Billy Slater.
Billy Slater felt Hugh van Cuylenburg was the right fit for his Queensland side. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

Van Cuylenburg reinforced the gratitude theme in 2022 with a story close to home.

“In the first Maroons camp the word was ‘dis’ and our theme for 2022 was gratitude,” he said. 

“I told the story of this nine-year-old boy I met in India who sleeps on a floor with no running water or electricity. I’d taught him in a slum in a desert community.

“This kid, whenever he saw something he was grateful for, like his shoes, he would say ‘dis’. He was trying to say the word ‘this’. 

“The first question I asked the players was, ‘How many of you grew up dreaming of playing State of Origin for Queensland?’ and every single hand went up.

“I said, ‘So you are living your dream. There are not too many people in the world that can say they are living their dream every day but that’s what you guys are doing’.

“We can lose sight of that sometimes, all of us. They knew how fortunate they are but to have an outsider come in, it seemed to resonate.”

Maroons hooker Harry Grant said the gratitude theme still moved him.

“That is the legacy Hugh has left. He has really shone a light on how grateful we are to be in this position and how privileged we are,” Grant said.

“There are a lot of Queenslanders out there who would give up anything to taste State of Origin and represent their state. We don’t lose track of that. We know why we are playing.”