I conducted this interview with Jamie after Rugby League World declared him to be the British player of the noughties, based on our exclusive annual world ratings. After another international disappointment in the 2009 Four Nations Final against Australia, the England captain opened up and spoke about his thoughts on the state of Rugby League in this country.
Congratulations on making the team of the decade and for being the best British player. It’s not been a bad ten years for you has it?
It’s been a great decade and it’s really pleasing. I’m not the most talented but I’ve always wanted to be consistent and to deliver at a high level in big games. I debuted for England in the 2000 World Cup and I’ve stayed injury free, playing every year since then. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of success at club level but not as much as I’d have liked on the international stage. But, overall, I can’t complain with how things have gone.
Was there ever a time when you thought you wouldn’t make it?
Yes, absolutely. I remember watching the Test series in 1997 in Bramley Social Club and it wasn’t even an aspiration to play for Great Britain because I was miles off that standard. But I got some resolve and focus in Wollongong and Featherstone then I got one more chance at the big time with Bradford and I thought “This is it”. I identified what I could be good at and what skills other players might not have. I thought if I was good at them then I’d be able to make it in the competition. I worked really hard before 1999 and I got my break. I’ve worked hard but I’ve had some luck along the way.
Adrian Morley was fantastic in that Test series. He’s also in the team of the decade along with Keith Senior and Brian Carney.
Four isn’t bad is it? Moz was someone I really looked up to and everyone had such massive respect for him as I was coming through the ranks. Moz and Keith have been brilliant players who have delivered on the international stage. Brian too. That’s the sign of a quality player.
Were you surprised Keith didn’t get picked this year?
I don’t know – that’s down to [England coach] Tony [Smith] and Keith. Keith was in great form – certainly the best centre in the competition this year but maybe it was time to move on and give youth ago. That seemed to be the attitude and you need that bit of ruthlessness sometimes.
Talking of Moz, do you regret not playing in the NRL?
Yeah, I suppose a little bit but I don’t like living my life with regrets. I’ve had a fantastic time at Bradford and Leeds. You shouldn’t think about what could have happened; you should just enjoy what has happened.
Was there ever an offer from Down Under?
Yes I spoke to clubs like Canberra and Canterbury and some other clubs not too long ago. But I always wanted to play for Leeds.
What’s your current contract situation?
I have two more years at Leeds, up to the end of 2011. I’ve got a target in my mind of when I want to play until and it’s beyond those two years. I want another season after that.
Your first game against Australia couldn’t have gone any better could it?
Not really! To score inside two minutes and then go on to get the win was an absolute dream. The team was pretty nervous all week because we were just desperate to get out there and play well. It was an unbelievable first game against them for me. I even won my old amateur club, Stanningley, £1000 from Guinness for scoring inside the time it takes to pour a pint! That was pleasing as well because they’re a great club.
Darren Lockyer, unsurprisingly, is the player of the decade. As captains, you do a lot of photoshoots together. What do you think of him?
He’s probably the world’s most annoying man because he’s caused me so much heartbreak and has pipped us so many times at the post so you’d think I wouldn’t like him. But he’s a great bloke, really likeable and a fantastic, world-class player. I can’t speak highly enough of him.
Have you got over England’s latest defeat yet?
Right now my focus is back with the Rhinos and tuning into next year. As for England, I’m pretty optimistic at the moment with the way the young blokes played and some of the things going on at the RFL with new people beginning to be employed in important roles.
They’re getting people in from outside the game which is important. They’re taking steps forward with sports science and how we need to look after players. An influx of overseas coaches is also bringing up playing standards. We’ve all seen what Bluey [Brian McClennan] has done at Leeds, we all know what Tony [Smith] can do and look what Nathan Brown has done at Huddersfield. We all want to see more British coaches of course, but what matters most is getting coaches who can improve the game.
But people will say we need to be developing more homegrown coaches.
True but they have to be good enough to get a job. Steve McNamara and Brian McDermott are two who stand out as top-line British coaches and if we produced more of that quality then they’d have Super League jobs.
What big advances has the sport made in the last ten years?
Good question. The international game is one example – look how far it’s come since the World Cup in 2000. The sport has a more professional feel about it. The game has improved as a whole with the standards increasing every year – it’s a cliché but it’s true.
We used to have a ‘Big Five’ just a few years ago, now we only have a ‘Big Two’. How is that an improvement?
I think that was maybe the case in 2008 but in 2009, clubs one to ten were all capable of beating each other and that didn’t used to be the case a few years ago. A team that didn’t make the play-offs has just won the Challenge Cup and that’s what the game needs. Back when I started out at Bradford we were smashing teams by 50 or 60 points most weeks and we only had five or six tough games a year. That doesn’t happen now and that’s a sign of a rapidly improving competition.
What about improvements in sports science and conditioning over the decade?
Well I was really lucky to be at the Bulls and we were at the forefront of all that for years but I’m not sure if standards across Super League were always very good. In my opinion we’ve only really started to address this in the last year or so. Melbourne and Manly have opened a lot of people’s eyes over here and the RFL are doing something about it.
Do the RFL consult with people like yourself and other senior players about how they can improve the game.
I’m asked things sometimes but not in an official capacity.
Do you think they should consult a core of senior players like yourself, Moz, Keiron Cunningham etc for your opinions?
Yes, I think so. You’ll always make a better decision with more information. They might not choose to take advice on board but it should at least be listened to.
Did the Four Nations exorcise some of the World Cup ghosts?
Yeah I think it did. It was good to have the Four Nations because a lot of good things came out of it on and off the field. The World Cup was a kick up the arse that we needed and we played well in the Four Nations but we know we still need to improve even more.
James Graham believes that if our kids play in the summer we might produce backs like the Aussies have. Do you agree?
No doubt about it. The kids’ game has got to move to the summer as soon as possible. My lad plays in the five and six age brackets but I’m not bothered about taking him down there because I want him to play in the summer instead of him freezing his backside off, not enjoying himself. It will definitely lead to better backs being produced but we also have to address rugby union taking the best backs. They’ve got more money than us and more international prospects.
Apart from Jason Robinson, none of the cross-coders have really become top union players and a few return very quickly. Surely they’ll stop wasting their money soon?
Maybe, but the fact is they’re still taking them. It might not have worked out for Chev Walker, for example, but if he’d stayed in Rugby League he might now be a first-choice England centre. He lost a key part of his League career when he should have been developing even more. Every time a good English back comes up, they’re into them and something needs to be done.
So do we need to increase the salary cap?
Yes, it should go up by a certain percentage every year, similar to the usual lines of inflation, although not at the moment because they’re at zero. Just a few percent every year would do.
Have you ever been approached by union?
No, I don’t think I’d excite any rugby union club. I don’t think I’d know what to do to be honest.
They’d probably stick you in the centres.
Maybe a few years ago when I had some pace!
Do you still have an international future?
I’ve not decided yet. I’ll see how I feel during the year but I’ll concentrate on Leeds for the time being.
Who should be the next England coach?
It needs to be a full-time position and they need to be contracted through to the next World Cup. They’re my real thoughts on the issue. The RFL are putting in place some good processes as they look for a new coach and I’m sure whoever gets it will lead us forward.
Is there anyone in particular you want to see get it?
I don’t want to show favouritism to anybody. The RFL will make the right decision.
Were you sorry to see Tony go?
Yes, he’s a great coach and I’ve always enjoyed being coached by him. I had a great time with him at Leeds and internationally in ’07 and ’09. He’s a great fella as well; I like him. He’s got his quirks but I like working with him.
Did he take a lot of unfair flak after the World Cup?
Yes, I think so. As players we didn’t perform. We maybe went in with too much confidence – we seem to do better in this country when we go into things with a low-key attitude. The players had to take responsibility for what happened in Australia because the gameplan was right; we just didn’t come up with the goods.
In last month’s issue you put across some strong views on the issue of player burnout.
It’s a massive issue. If an outsider looked into Rugby League and why we get beaten by the Australians, they’d think we were stupid playing the amount of games we do. It’s ridiculous; it’s far too many. The competition should be cut down to ten teams then each club will get more money and you’d have a more intense competition with less games.
So the increase to 14 teams was a mistake?
I don’t think it’s worked. The more I think about it, the more I think it should go to ten teams. It would be much better.
But Salford came up, beat the top three and introduced some fantastic kids to Super League like Myler, Ratchford, Turner and Adamson. Before them Catalans, Castleford and Hull KR have done very well since coming into the competition.
We’d have a better Championship and kids would get blooded in that, like those four did anyway. If they’re good enough to step up to Super League, they’ll do it.
The goings on at the Crusaders strengthens your argument I suppose.
Imagine how the people at Widnes and Halifax feel about what has been going on in Wales. You need a base to run a club and you need to build things from bottom up.
What’s your attitude towards expansion?
Things take time and a lot of people don’t realise that. You need to be working away behind the scenes and with amateur players in an area for 10 or 15 years before you put a Super League club somewhere. I’m all for expansion but it has to be through the amateurs first.
What about at Championship level?
Definitely. Clubs should come in at that level first. Things just don’t happen overnight. That’s how I’d do it anyway.
The RFL decided to slow down the ruck in 2009. What were your thoughts?
You’ve just got to get on with things and we adapted pretty well at Leeds. You just have to play the best football you can whatever the speed of the ruck.
What are your opinions on the standards of refereeing?
I don’t know… that’s a good question. I think the problem comes from the person who runs the referees [Stuart Cummings] rather than the referees. Who’s questioning him and who’s questioning what job he does? The refs get reviewed every week and it’s a difficult job. Some are good but if they make a bad decision, you just have to get on with it. But who’s reviewing the performance of the people in charge? That’s my worry.
What would you change?
They should have more input from the coaches and the players. The standard of refereeing was alright last year – they’re like the players; some days they’re good and some days they’re not. The aim has to be for consistency.
Do you judge a ref on how he controls the ruck?
Not really. The best refs get the 50-50 calls right.
Tony Smith believes we should get rid of video refs and I agree with him. What do you think?
No, I think the video refs are OK but they need to make quicker decisions.
There was that infamous long wait in the 2008 play-offs when you ‘scored’ against Wigan.
That was ridiculous. I think I got it down and Richie Mathers thinks he held me up. The wait took the whole momentum out of the game and that’s the problem with it. They should decide in under a minute or a minute and a half. It should be no longer than how long a shot at goal takes – that’s the longest stoppage in a game and this should be no longer.
So if they still don’t know, should it go back to the ref?
Yeah probably. Something has to be done about the long waits.
What do you think about the Magic Weekend?
If you reduce Super League to ten teams then it’ll work. I don’t mind Edinburgh, it’s a different surrounding for the players and the fans who go seem to like it.
How much do you get recognised when you’re out and about?
I get recognised a fair bit and the last few years have been pretty mad. I get a lot of attention and even though I’m a personal person, I’ve learned to deal with it. Ninety-nine percent of people are really nice and it’s great to talk to people like that.
What are the other one percent like?
I end up arguing with some people about their opinions on players and stuff. I tend not to suffer fools gladly so I end up arguing with them.
Do you have any new year’s resolutions?
No, I’ve got no resolutions. I just want a big year and I want to reach the goals I’ve set for myself.
Is winning the Challenge Cup one of them?
Massively. We talk about it a lot at Leeds. It’s such a prestigious competition and I’ve never played at Wembley which is something I’m desperate to do.
Would you like to see internationals played at Wembley again?
Yes, but my solution would be to build a 35- or 40-thousand capacity stadium in West Yorkshire for Castleford and Wakefield to share. It would also be Rugby League’s own stadium for internationals and Cup semi-finals. I’d still have the big finals at Wembley and Old Trafford though. Rugby League needs a base and that would provide it; Cas and Wakefield need a ground so it would solve a lot of problems.
Do you like reading Jamie Jones-Buchanan’s interviews?
Absolutely, they’re a really good read! He’s got a lot of thoughts in that head of his and he’s a great thinker.
How did your autobiography go?
Very well – the hardback copies sold out and the updated paperback is out early next year. It’s something I really enjoyed doing because it was like reliving my career all over again. When you’re going along you tend to forget about what you’ve done earlier. My dad has kept everything to do with my career and it took me about 20 minutes to get into each season that I was looking back on but it was really enjoyable.