I spoke to the great Dean Bell ahead of the 2005 Tri-Nations for Thirteen, primarily about his own international career, and his time in coaching.
Dean, you played in the 1983 series in Australia as a 21 year old and you were up against Kerry Boustead on the wing. What are your memories of this series and in particular the famous 19-12 win in Brisbane?
It was an exciting time for myself and a very proud moment when I was named in the team. The coach at the time was Graham Lowe and he obviously had enough faith in me but it was a daunting task to mark Kerry Boustead because he was one of the quickest guys I’ve ever seen and one of the best wingers in the world. But I was looking forward to the challenge. In the game, a runaway Eric Grothe try, the type of which only he could have scored, killed us off. That game was in Auckland and no one gave us a chance in the second test at Brisbane. We hadn’t won a test in years and had been on the back of a lot of heavy defeats in the previous decade but we came out and put in one of the best performances seen in years by the New Zealanders and beat them in their own backyard.
We took a lot of self belief into that game and it paid off. The night before the game, Graham showed us a video of the New Zealand Rowing Eight getting their gold medals presented at the Olympics and he told us to look at their faces and to take in what it meant to them. Most of them were crying, experiencing tears of joy. At first, we wondered what this had to do with us but he just said we could experience this too. The thing with tears of joy is you have to work for it and we went out there and battered them. We dominated them physically and that hadn’t happened to an Australian side for years. Our pack that day was the toughest pack I’ve ever been involved with. Players like Kurt Sorensen, Kevin Tamati and Mark Broadhurst had great presence, Graeme West was a great player and Gary Prohm was like an extra centre with the work rate to be able to play in the pack. The Australian side was full of legendary figures too and Lang Park generated an incredible atmosphere. It was an amazing feeling afterwards.
You then went on to score a hat trick against Papua New Guinea with Hugh McGahan scoring six tries.
Yes, that was something to be proud no matter who the opposition was and it was at Carlaw Park too which was great in front of my family. I actually played at centre that day and it got me closer to the action. Starting my test career on the wing was a good way of being introduced to things. I then moved permanently into the centres later on in my New Zealand career.
Then came the losing series against Australia with the Kiwis winning the last test 18-0.
I certainly remember that one! We’d lost the first two and in that second test at Carlaw Park we were winning late off but I was carried off with a bad knee injury. I was in the changing rooms and the physio was updating me and with a minute to go he came in saying, “we’ve got this one.” Then I heard all the groans, they’d scored and we’d lost the game and the series. I was just devastated. It was bad enough being carried off but we really thought we had a chance. I didn’t think I had a chance to play in the third game but I was desperate to make it. I spent the whole week setting my alarm for every two hours during the night for the physio to treat me. On the morning of the game I was given a fitness test and I wasn’t 100% fit. I was probably about 80% right but I was determined to make it. I was basically on one leg!. We went out and beat them 18-0. Not many teams nil the Australians do they? My cousin Clayton Friend got two tries that day.
Shaun Edwards labelled the Kiwis the best side in the World in our interview with him. You actually played opposite Shaun in the centres in the final test of the drawn series in Great Britain and there were plenty of talking points in the series weren’t there?
I always remember the linesman in the last test coming on giving penalties against us and it was from one of his decisions that Lee Crooks kicked the penalty to make it 6-6 and level the series. It was a disappointing end to the series for us but in the first, we’d won with a late try and then there was the game at Wigan when Garry Schofield scored four tries. Only he could score tries like that. He was one of the best try poachers. It was a good series but we should have won.
1986 was a bad year wasn’t it? A whitewash by Australia and a defeat by Papua New Guinea although you missed that. Then, in 1987, you played them again as captain and won. What was it like playing in Papua New Guinea?
Unbelievable! It’s like playing rugby league in a sauna. I remember before the game we found about 20 stones in a two metre radius. So we had to order a clean up before the game started. Then, in the game, we had players dropping like flies. It looked like we’d lose because the heat was taking so much out of us. They were the definitely the most difficult conditions I’ve ever played in but we dug deep and came through in the end.
You then went on to another win against Australia in Brisbane. The Kiwis had beaten them three times in four years and you were the only player to play in them all weren’t you?
Yes, that’s right and Australia hadn’t been beaten for a long time prior to that. I thought the first would be a rarity but to get three in a short space was great. Two were at Brisbane too. I’d also beaten a Queensland select side there with New Zealand too so Lang Park was a favourite ground of mine. It was a great ground to play open rugby on. I was man of the match when we won 13-6 in 1987 and, again, we were up against a side of legends.
Another big international win was the 12-10 game against Great Britain in 1988 to qualify for the World Cup Final?
It’s a game that I don’t remember a lot about but obviously I remember the importance of it to us. Graham Lowe spoke to us the night before saying we had to win it, not just for ourselves, but also for the players who had played at the start of the World Cup campaign like Kevin Tamati, Howie Tamati, Dane Sorensen, Fred Ah Kuoi, Gary Kemble, James Leuluai, Dane O’Hara, Olsen Filipaina and Gary Prohm. Also for Hugh McGahan who was injured. So we were desperate to get to the World Cup final and I asked the guys to stand up one by one and speak about what it meant to them. The tears were certainly flowing that night.
The game was close as there wasn’t much between the sides. Great Britain had just had that famous 26-12 win in Sydney the week before but Gary Freeman came off the bench to score twice and we got through to the final 12-10.
And what about the World Cup Final itself?
Well to captain a side in a World Cup final was a special moment but it’s certainly not an occasion remembered fondly in New Zealand. We under-performed on the day and got our priorities wrong. The New Zealand press built us up as favourites and, looking back, there are a few things we should have done differently that week. The Australians, with all their experience, were very quiet during the build up.
Is it possible to be over emotional and go out and play with the wrong attitude? Malcolm Reilly told us that that was the case with Great Britain in the second test of 1988 when he thinks he over played the motivational side of things and their hearts ruled their heads.
Yes, that can definitely be the case and it’s something you have to learn from. For instance, this week I was telling our under 18s team the importance of staying focused before their Grand Final at Leeds and that you’ve got to play the game and not the occasion. It’s a common mistake in all kinds of sport, not just rugby. It’s stage fright and people let their emotions get carried away. You have to remember what your job is and what you’re there to do and we lost the plot that day. Looking back, you know there’s things you’d do differently.
Also, I wasn’t happy with the way the New Zealand Rugby League dealt with the aftermath. They were looking for scapegoats and there was a lot of criticism flying around. That made up my mind to retire from international rugby. I must admit though, I was thinking about it anyway as it was taking its toll on me here at Wigan. I’d play a full winter season here and then go back to play in test matches so I was basically playing 12 months a year. I knew my career would be short-lived if I continued to do that. So I decided to retire and devote myself to Wigan. It was a tough call to make and I wasn’t entirely happy but in life you have to make tough decisions. Playing for my country was the highlight of my career but I ended up having a long career which I might not have had and I was still playing in the Winfield Cup at 34.
After such a demoralising defeat in a game of that magnitude, was part of your thinking, “How are we ever going to beat these guys when it really matters?”
Oh no no. That certainly wasn’t the case. For me, challenges like that are what I look forward to and no challenge ever put me off. One day someone will beat them in a series!
When you watched the 2004 Tri-Nations final, did you see similarities with the 1988 World Cup final?
Yes, I did. Definitely. I was thinking, “been here before!” The signs were there with the press and they do it too in football. They have a good game and everyone thinks England are going to win the World Cup! You think people would learn from previous mistakes but sadly not. I’d love to see someone else win the Tri-Nations and last year I predicted someone else would but that was probably out of hope than anything else. However, you have to admire the Australians because when they need to turn it on they do.
How hard is it to coach the right mentality because if Great Britain or New Zealand top the group again then it’s likely that the media, the fans and the players will approach the final in the same way as Britain did in 2004 and New Zealand did in 1988?
Yes, it’s hard but there’s been so many lessons in the past that they’ve got to learn the lesson eventually. That first half in last year’s Tri-Nations final was as good a 40 minutes of rugby league that I’ve ever seen so nothing should be taken away from the Australians but, saying that, Great Britain froze.
Was it strange to play against and beat the Kiwis in 1989 for Wigan?
Yes, it was actually. One of the strangest things in my career!
What are your memories of your final test series?
I was asked to come back and the lure of playing for my country got to me. Also, it was during the English season so I decided to play. We had a good enough team so it was disappointing to lose the series but Great Britain put in a very courageous performance to come back and win the series
There was even talk of you playing for New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup.
Yes, Frank Endacott asked me to come out of international retirement and captain the side. I was 34 and playing for Auckland Warriors in our first season there but I didn’t really take it seriously. I’d had my time and playing again didn’t come into my thinking so it was a quick “no” that I gave.
You were wanted at loose forward weren’t you?
Yes, that’s right. I’d played there from time to time in my last season at Wigan and at Auckland. It’s what tends to happen to old centres!
You just had one year at Auckland didn’t you?
Yes, they offered me another year but I didn’t accept. However, it was a fairytale end to my career playing with the Warriors. If you could script an ending for your career, that would have been exactly mine. It was bigger than playing here. It was amazing.
When I left New Zealand as a 20-year-old to go to Carlisle, it was just an amateur game and we were lucky to get 1500 fans. At Auckland we were getting 28,000 which is a huge turnaround. the game was getting the sort of recognition I’d longed for for many years. I had reservations about going back because I didn’t think I could top the Wigan years at that age but I knew it was a challenge I knew I had to attempt.
It was a hell of a year wasn’t it? The opening night defeat to Brisbane must have been heartbreaking.
No, in a way it wasn’t because we’d gained a lot of credibility. You had to be there to understand the pressure we were under in that one game. It was the opening game of the Winfield Cup season and there had been a three year build up for the Warriors. The marketing people had done an amazing job and created this monster that was always going to be near impossible to live up to.
So the pressure on us in that opening game was huge and I thought we could only fail! We were going into the unknown and I didn’t know how we’d perform as a team. we’d only had warm up games and hadn’t been tested in the big arena. Brisbane were awesome and we were firstly after credibility. A win would have been a bonus but when I look back now, we should have won. We put ourselves in a winning position but probably didn’t bank on the genius of Alfie Langer bringing them back into the game.
Then there was the interchange mess against Wests that led to the Warriors losing two competition points.
Yes, that was against the Magpies and was at Auckland. The coaching staff had used one extra substitute and had it not been for that we’d have made the finals which would have been a huge bonus. History proves that a lot of new clubs struggle in their first year like Canberra and Brisbane so to come so close to the finals was pretty good, especially as we were also entertainers. Like I said, the whole experience was fantastic.
You came back to England to the Leeds job. You had a decent Centenary season then a disastrous first Super League season for the club.
When I finished playing I hadn’t done much planning for my future. I had some connections with Leeds having played there and I was earmarked as an assistant to Dougie Laughton but while I was coming over he resigned! It was a bit difficult as I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t served my apprenticeship but we did alright finishing second.
I was attracted to Leeds because I’d seen as a player that they were prepared to spend money to be successful so I thought I’d have a chance. I signed Barrie McDermott and I thought it would be great if I could carry on making signings like that but I knew even before I went there that the work ethic of the place wasn’t great. Then after the McDermott signing, the club hit money problems and players had to be cut. It was always going to be cut. No matter who the coach is, you have to have the players or he doesn’t have a chance. It was difficult all round and also for me having just retired as a player and coming to terms with coaching but we did change things like the work ethic and the mindset of the place as well so I was quite happy with a lot of things we did there.
But 1996 wasn’t good. I even had to put myself in one game against Paris. I never really thought we were in a relegation battle but I was determined not to get sucked into one and would have done anything to have steered clear of that. I sat down to select the side and thought “I could do a better job than this centre.” I’d never been so exhausted in my life because I hadn’t done any quality training but it was worth it.
But in 1997 you turned things around.
Yes, that’s right. We didn’t have the big names at the start of that year and you won’t win trophies without them but we had to get the club on a sound financial footing first so it was a case of working with the younger players. We were lucky to be in an area that produced so many players and at this stage the club was going in the right direction.
What was behind your decision to leave Leeds and leave first-grade coaching?
I needed some stability. I’d seen quite a few coaches get the sack, my son was just starting high school and I wasn’t willing to take that risk. Sometimes you have to ask if what you’re doing is what you want to do and, for me, it wasn’t. People may have thought there was more to it but there wasn’t. Gary Hetherington actually offered me another year.
I stepped down to work with youth development because I’d thought it would be nice to work with youngsters and make them realise what they could achieve and I thought that was the biggest thing I could do. I was lucky to have so many talented youngsters there.
You played with some fantastic players at international level. Who do you remember as the best?
Jeez, that’s a hard one. Different people stand out for different reasons like Kevin Tamati for his toughness, Kurt Sorensen for his explosiveness, James Leuluai for his finishing quality, Fred Ah Kuoi for his handling and Olsen Filipaina was a great stand off who always played well for the Kiwis. There’s a lot though.
And what about the coaches? You played a lot of football under Graham Lowe.
Graham Lowe was the catalyst for my test career and he got you looking deeper into the game and got the best out of players. I owe a lot to him. I was always very focused anyway, even as an amateur, so when I started working with him it was a good partnership and we had similar thoughts about the game. Then there was John Monie too. People say that anyone could have coached Wigan back then but history has proven you can’t just buy a championship winning side and that the coach has to mould the team and manage all the egos and the personalities.
Who did you look up to as a youngster?
There was Roger Bailey who I thought a lot of and Dennis Williams as well but I’d also watch a lot of the Australian game and Steve Rogers and Mick Cronin were two heroes of mine. Two completely different centres but two of the best I’ve ever seen. Steve was the Prince of Centres with gracefulness and had all the qualities you want in a centre. It was a dream for me to play in the Australian competition as a kid with Eastern Suburbs against those two players. Then, in my opinion, one of the all time great players is Mal Meninga. I marked him a lot in the test arena and he had everything, not just his size. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do.
What do you think of the Kiwi and British chances this year?
New Zealand were very disappointing last year and are much better than they showed but they’re not helped by the players pulling out. Again, this year they’re without Benji Marshall and Sonny-Bill Williams who can win games on their own. Don’t get me wrong though, they’ll still be very competitive. As for Great Britain, I’m not sure if they have the strike power or the depth to do it.
We keep saying we’re getting closer to the Australians. Things are going very well here with junior development – something I’m heavily involved in – but the Australians aren’t standing still either. They’re advancing their game all the time. Look at their depth – it’s frightening.