This piece with Quins’ Henry Paul was the first big interview I did with a player in my time with Rugby League World, and it was a good choice to make. Not only was he a brilliant player with a great story to tell, he could talk for New Zealand. Or even England.
PLAYING a starring role in Harlequins’ win over St Helens in Round One, one of the surprise results of the summer era, was Henry Paul the returnee from rugby union who, even in his new position at the back of the scrum, was a constant thorn in the side of the Saints and racked up a tackle count of 40.
Paul’s English Rugby League career began with Wakefield Trinity in 1993 and having travelled via Wigan, Bradford and Gloucester he now finds himself in the capital, playing for his old Bradford Bulls teammate, Brian McDermott.
“Brian’s never happy. He’s a hard guy to please! But I haven’t regretted coming here at all and I wish I’d done it six or seven years ago. It’s been a great decision.
“I wasn’t enjoying my last season at Gloucester. I fell out with the coach and he wasn’t interested in playing me after a while. I went off to play Sevens for the season instead.
“Then, I considered the NRL but Ian Lenegan, at Harlequins, sold the club to me, convinced me I didn’t have to travel halfway around the world. I liked what the club were saying to me and I wanted the chance to live in London.”
So how did a young Henry Paul stumble across Rugby League?
“Mum and Dad used to take me to my local club back home in New Zealand on a Saturday morning. It started when I was three which basically involved me digging holes in the ground while the other kids ran around with a ball! I joined in when I was older, playing League in the winter and cricket or softball in the summer. I started playing organised games at six or seven.
“I was a big kid, bigger than most of my age. So if I got the ball, I often scored a try. At 11 or 12, things even out and I had to develop some skills in order to do well. I didn’t play too much with my brother because he was two years younger and in a different age group.
“I really fell in love with League when I was 13 or 14. Our local video store used to get in the Winfield Cup games from Australia on a Saturday morning and Robbie and I would watch them religiously all weekend, watching guys like a young Laurie Daley and some good Kiwi players up there. A few years later, they’d be on television in New Zealand and I began to think that I’d like to do that. When I was 17 I made my local Premiership team and made a bit of money. I was going to uni and the money I earned at the weekends supported me through that. Some of those games were even on TV. From there, I made the Junior Kiwis.”
Paul’s Junior Kiwis toured England in 1993 at the same time as the full New Zealand national side, who were contesting a Test series with Great Britain, that they would eventually lose 3-0.
“It was a great tour and we had a good team. We stayed in pubs and a few university dorms all over the north and had a great time, finishing off in France. The games were tough and we had guys like Joe Vagana and Bryan Henare as well as a few players at the Warriors who could have gone on to good things but lost their edge playing reserve grade back home. I wasn’t the most talented player but you have to take your chances which I did. It was one of the best times of my life. We played a BARLA team, captained by Paul Sculthorpe and won quite easily but you could see how good he was and he’s become a legend hasn’t he? I played against Iestyn [Harris] at Warrington in a physical game where there was a brawl and we played at Wembley, which was fantastic, against the cream of the British youth.”
Midway through the tour, Wakefield approached the young Kiwis about the prospect of Paul joining them on a short-term basis in their Stones Bitter Division One campaign thus giving him the chance to kick-start his British professional career.
“I was signed up to the Warriors on a two-year contract which would have paid my uni fees. There was such mad hype over there at the time and I was the Under-21s captain. Dave Topliss spoke to Frank Endacott to enquire about a spell at Wakefield for Paul. Frank advised me that it would be a great opportunity, so I went for it. The money wasn’t great but it was a chance to play against clubs like Wigan and Leeds before going back to the Warriors so I said ‘yes’ straightaway. That night, I found a programme that one of the guys had picked up in England and saw that they were second to last in the table. I thought, ‘oh no, what have I done?’
“I ended up joining the senior Kiwi team, who were touring, and went to France with them after they had some injury problems. Then it was off to Wakefield where I loved every second.
“I had a place of my own for a couple of days. I got quite friendly with Matt Fuller and stayed with Stuart Farrar, one of the directors, for a few days. Then I met a young player at Wakefield called Kieron Allen. He invited me over for dinner and I ended up staying for three or four months! His parents, Keith and Margaret, took me under their wing and they’ve been my English Mum and Dad ever since. England became home straightaway and Margaret looked after me like I was one of her own.
“Dave Topliss was good for me, he just let me play my natural game. It looked like we’d get relegated but we won some games and ended up staying up.”
“I played against some big teams and we won at Wigan which was amazing. I got caught up in the whole buzz of it. Wakefield were keen to keep me but I told them I was contracted to the Warriors back home. I really wanted to play for Auckland in the Winfield Cup but, when I was back in New Zealand, I looked at their squad and all the money they’d spent, and couldn’t see a way into it. They weren’t going to leave some of their big names out so I went to see the coach (John Monie) and he said, totally naturally I suppose, that I’d have to start in the reserve grade but I wanted to play and I’d done well in England so I didn’t want that.
“I was still considering Wakefield but they lost some players and it wouldn’t have been the same club that I’d been playing for me. Wigan were massive of course and they’d just signed Tuigamala. Him and Jason Robinson spoke to me and told me how big the club was. It wasn’t a hard decision in the end but John said they wouldn’t release me. Wigan wanted me and instead of letting Andy Platt go to the Warriors for free as was planned, they suddenly slapped a fee on him so they could swap him for me.
“The first season there when we won everything is right up there of course. I scored a try at Wembley against a good Leeds team and we’d also won the Regal Trophy and the Championship with a couple of games to spare. Then we won the Premiership final at Old Trafford. That was an awesome team.
“We lost a few players like Clarkey, Denis and Frano and a few young players came through. We always won a trophy though, winning the Centenary Season and the Premiership finals in 1996 and 1997 so we were proud of that but we didn’t win the League nor the Challenge Cup in those years and we’d lost guys like Shaun and Inga by then. Shaun was a real leader and, although there was still a hard-working and professional culture at the club, we missed him. He had been the heart and soul of the club for a long time.
“We could have sulked about 1997 but we picked up the Premiership at Old Trafford over Saints and took that form into 1998 when we finished top that year and also won the Grand Final against a really good Leeds side.”
However, 1998 did produce one well remembered low-point for the club. They were beaten by Sheffield Eagles at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final, still regarded today as one of the famous competition’s shock results.
“To be honest, Sheffield wasn’t a real low for me. What I mean is, I didn’t take it as badly as you’d assume. I’d just come back from beating Australia with New Zealand in the Anzac Day Test and had to prepare for the final feeling pretty pumped up. A Challenge Cup final is a Challenge Cup final and it was great to play there. We’d worked our nuts off to get there but, to be fair, Sheffield had a good day. We were disappointed that night but we knew the Super League Grand Final was being introduced that year and we wanted to be the first team to win that. We thrashed Sheffield the week after…too late of course and, in the build-up to the Grand Final with Leeds, we reminded ourselves of losing at Wembley and it spurred us on to win at Old Trafford.
“Those games that season with Leeds were great and we got over them a couple of times late on and I look back and wonder how. They probably wonder how they lost to us too! They had a great coach, Moz was destroying people, Daryl Powell was organising them and Iestyn was running the show but we had a good team ourselves and we won.”
Looking back on his Wigan career, did he clash with Andy Farrell, another dominant second receiver?
“No, he didn’t hinder me at all. He’d want a lot of the ball and I just copped it because he was a class player. I’d tell him to get out of the way and he’d tell me to get stuffed instead! But it’s good for a team to have different options but I understand people thinking that stand-offs at Wigan after me might have suffered a bit with it. Faz and I had a good system though.”
By then Paul was well and truly established on the international scene and regarded as one of the finest stand-off halves in the world. His international career began on the wing with New Zealand in a 3-0 series loss to Australia midway through 1995, with the World Cup following soon after where the inconsistent Kiwis almost lost their opening game to a Duane Mann inspired Tonga before coming agonisingly close to dumping Australia out at the semi-final stage in a wonderful contest at Huddersfield. A late Kevin Iro try levelled the scores at 20-20 leaving Matthew Ridge, a kicker of renowned accuracy, with a touchline conversion to win a place in the final. He fluffed his kick but almost redeemed himself with a 50 metre field-goal attempt, off his weaker foot, sailed just wide and unfortunately the ensuing extra-time period saw two match winning Australian tries.
“I was playing fullback at the time for Wigan but Matthew Ridge was in that position for the Kiwis so I wasn’t going to be playing there in the World Cup. We didn’t get off to a good start, almost losing to Tonga and everyone wrote us off after that. Whizz (Gary Freeman) was pretty good to me in training but something happened in camp and I ended up at hooker in that semi-final against Australia at Huddersfield. I’d previously played against Australia on the wing in a Test series for New Zealand earlier that year but this was something completely different although I’d have played prop to have played in a World Cup. I loved it and if only Ridgey’s kick had gone over, we’d have been in the final – but I was buzzing having been given the chance to play in such a big game. No one could blame Ridgey, he was an incredible kicker and he’d take my lunch money off me in training every day by beating me in kicking contests!”
The Kiwis campaign also involved a payment dispute when, according to Ridge’s excellent autobiography, the players threatened to strike.
“Yes, there was a dispute over pay. It brought us closer together I suppose but it was something over nothing. The boys’ attitude was, “let’s get paid to win but we’ll just give the money away if we lose.” We were only arguing over about a thousand pounds, something stupid like that. It might sound a lot of money but it’s nothing compared to playing in a World Cup final and that’s what we were after. There was a possibility that we wouldn’t train over it but we’d have always played despite the threat not to.”
The next major international that Paul was involved in was the 1998 Anzac Day Test against Australia in New Zealand. Not arriving until two days before the Test, Paul again played at hooker, a position he was unfamiliar with in the English game but an imperious display, and a first half try-assist for Kevin Iro, led to a memorable 22-16 win. Later in the year, Paul played his part in a 2-0 series win over a badly under-achieving Great Britain side.
“I wasn’t picked originally. I arrived on the Wednesday and the game was on the Friday. Everyone played out of their skin that night. We were losing but came back and Robbie had a great game. We chanced our arm and got away with that. Then it was straight back to England and back to Wigan for me! That was the first game of the series and I couldn’t play in the remaining two later in the season and I was gutted about that.”
That year was Paul’s last at Wigan as he accepted the opportunity to link up with his brother Robbie at Bradford Bulls but was there a fall out between Paul and the Riversiders that led to the move?
“There was a bit. I was seeking an extension with Wigan but they kept making me wait. Clarkey was the Chief Executive at the time and he kept delaying me. I had to tell them I couldn’t wait anymore. I told them I’d play my nuts off for them for the rest of the year and then leave and that’s what happened. They went in a different direction and fair play to them.
“Bradford came in for me and asked me what I wanted to play for them and when I looked at their side, I just couldn’t turn them down.”
After a disappointing fifth-placed finish in 1998, Paul’s arrival heralded a significant up-turn in performances for the Odsal club, with them finishing top of the table going into the Super League play-offs. A 40-4 win over St Helens in the play-offs, with Paul scoring twice, underlined their supremacy in the competition but they were stunned by the same team in a wonderfully compelling Grand Final. A late Kevin Iro try won the game for Saints by 8-6 after a long-range individual try from Paul had opened the scoring.
“I don’t want to look back at that final. It angers me much more than Sheffield.”
It has often been put forward that Saints were the Bulls’ bogey team although Paul dismisses this theory.
“It was a coincidence. They were a talented team who took their chances and, if you’re going to call them a jinx, then we were the jinx of Leeds. The Saints got up over us a couple of times. Man for man, they weren’t better than us but they worked hard and beat us on a couple of big occasions.”
“But it certainly motivated us for the following season and the great start we got to 2000 was probably down to that. We won the Cup at Murrayfield and it was great to win the Lance Todd although there were a couple of other guys who could have got it. I kicked some high balls and I was probably more of a steadying influence rather than a gamebreaker. We won it as a team and the best moment was seeing Bernard Dwyer afterwards. He’d lost the other finals he’d played in and he finally won one. He put in some big tackles late on when we were tired. So that was great for me, but it wasn’t just Bernard. It was good seeing all the smiles of people throughout the club, in the office etc.”
After looking invincible in the early stages of the season, the Bulls tailed off somewhat and bowed out of the play-offs with a 40-12 loss at Wigan but not before taking part in one of the games of the decade at Knowsley Road. With less than ten minutes left, Paul kicked a field goal for an 11-10 Bradford lead only for Saints’ Chris Joynt to score THAT try after the final hooter had sounded.
“I thought that my field-goal was a winner and it still sticks in my mind. We gave everything and it was great to be involved in. It was heartbreaking to see some of the people around the club and that TV footage of Matt falling off his chair! You have to take it on the chin when it happens, after all I’ve been involved in plenty of last minute wins. But, for a neutral, what a game!
After two years of play-off disappointment at the Bulls, Paul finally got his Super League winners’ ring as the Bulls thrashed hapless Wigan 37-6 in Manchester.
“That was fantastic and the boys were unstoppable. I felt sorry for Wigan, they just weren’t in the game. We were a really good team and over the next few years, the hard work put in by Matthew Elliott and Brian Noble really began to pay off.”
So what made Paul leave the Bulls for rugby union and the Bulls? He claimed midway through the year that they had prevented him from playing for the Kiwis in a Test Match against France in June and claimed that it could have a bearing on his future at Odsal. Did it prove significant in the end?
“That wasn’t a factor at all. I’d already made up my mind that I’d be leaving and going to play rugby union. Everyone’s doing it now but at the time it was pretty unique. I wanted to lead my own life and do what was right for me. I’m pleased that I did. My Gloucester career was good. I played nearly every game in four years. They hadn’t won anything for 20 years but I was part of a successful team. The Test match stuff left a bad taste in my mouth though. I was pulled off after 20 minutes of a game against Australia but it was never explained to me why. It was really weird and I never got a look-in again although I’d been doing well before that.”
Now back in Rugby League, McDermott pointed out after that win at Knowsley Road that the 2007 version of Henry Paul is different to the one that he had played with at the Bulls. Australian Scott Hill is the team’s pivot with Paul at loose-forward, making those 40 tackles against the Saints.
“My work rate is up and so is my line speed. I don’t take a backward step and I bring a lot of enthusiasm. I’ve got stubborness, am doing less ballwork now and rally round the forwards. I can pop up anywhere on attack, I almost have a roving role in the team. I work hard in defence and my teammates can’t shut me up!
“Yes, I was pleased with my tackle count of 40 but was it due to my high workrate or was I targeted by Saints? Who knows! In rugby union I sometimes made only three or four tackles! I was exhausted after those 40.”
Welcome back Henry. Welcome back.