‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Jason Demetriou in 2007.
Congratulations on your new deal at Wakefield.
Thanks, I always wanted to stay here and it was just a matter of both parties agreeing on things, which we did. I wanted to ensure that the club is going in the right direction. I’m not getting any younger and I want the chance to play in play-offs and to win things. When I look around at the players that we have, the decision was very easy. There’s a lot of young talent here putting pressure on the first team and that’s very healthy and the first time we’ve had it for a while.
How did you get into Rugby League when you were younger?
I went down to my local park when I was six with my brother and we were told to come back with 20 dollars and a birth certificate if we wanted to join the club. So we did and I’ve been playing ever since. My dad played a bit when he was young but there are no obvious Rugby League connections within the family. I’m from Sydney, the St George area and playing League was all I wanted to do. I always had a football in my hands and I was a big Balmain Tigers fan.
So have you ever got over Terry Lamb flattening Ellery Hanley in the 1988 Winfield Cup final?
No! I’m still filthy about it but that was a great few years for the club when they got to that final and the one the year after. Paul Sironen, Garry Jack and Benny Elias were superb and Ellery was fantastic in his spell at the club. He took the Rugby League world by storm in Australia and they loved him over there. He’s definitely one of the best Englishmen to play in Australia for sure. But the Tigers made up for those two Grand Final losses by winning the other year which was great to see.
What playing level did you reach in Australia?
I played semi-professional at Newtown Jets in the Jim Beam Cup which is the equivalent of our National Leagues. I played Harold Matthews Cup for St George which is Under-15s and I also played at SG Ball level which is 17s but I was told, at that stage, that I had to give the game away because of a bad neck injury, although obviously that didn’t end up happening.
How did your move to England come about?
I was playing for Bondi Roosters, a club affiliated with Sydney Roosters. Then the Super League war broke out and my coach advised me to consider moving to England. I was 20 at the time and a start for me in Australia was becoming unlikely. I finished my apprenticeship as a printer first and then headed over to stay with my girlfriend’s (now my wife) family in Liverpool. That was December 1999 and my plan was to play rugby and travel the world. Eight years later, I’m still here after starting out with Lancashire Lynx.
How did you adapt to life in the north-west of England?
It was pretty good and I stayed in Liverpool for three months although it was a tough adjustment when I first came over. I originally trialled with Batley and they wanted to look at me in an amateur competition but it snowed and I didn’t play. I ended up at Lancashire Lynx where the playing standards weren’t the greatest though there were some good players there but it was a battle to get players to training each week. It didn’t pay much money though and I was trying to get an opportunity at another National League club. In the end, Rochdale came in for me and I had good fun there. I was coached by Steve Linnane and played with Danny Sculthorpe, who I’m playing with now at Wakefield. We probably under-achieved given the team that we had but we got some good wins and it was a good stepping-stone before I went to Widnes.
What do you remember of your time at Widnes?
Widnes was a great time for me and I’ve got a lot of fond memories of my time there. I was well treated by the club and the supporters throughout my three years there and to win the first division Grand Final was a great achievement for us. We then signed Steve Carter, the Penrith Panthers captain, which was a great coup for us and he was brilliant for some of the young guys. Then there was that first game in Super League against St Helens in front of a full house when we lost late on to a Tommy Martyn drop goal. Funnily enough I was just watching the video of that the other day and they’re fond memories. We had a good record against Leeds that year, beating them in pre-season in South Africa and then doing the double over them in the league. We’d have been happy to play them every week! We missed the play-offs by a point and in the second Super League season, we were very competitive too.
People say that it’s impossible for the promoted team to compete in Super League but you finished seventh in 2002. Is that just a myth?
No, I think it’s right but they should have left things the way they were because when we won the Grand Final the season finished in July. We had a long time to prepare for the new season in terms of player recruitment and us guys getting up to speed in the gym. That all made a huge dfference and took a lot of pressure away from the promoted clubs. More recently, the promoted clubs have suffered because they haven’t had that luxury and it’s pretty unfair on them.
How did you end up at Wakefield in 2004?
At the end of 2003, I’d decided to move on. I spoke to Steve McNally who was coaching Wakefield and he was very keen for me to join up. I was glad I did because 2004 was fantastic at Wakefield. We got into the play-offs, which was an achievement in itself and then won at Hull in the first week. Then we lost 18-14 to Wigan having led 12-0.
The club didn’t maintain that though. Like Salford this year perhaps, did you struggle to cope with the increased expectations after such a good season?
It wasn’t so much that. We struggled to replace Gareth Ellis and that was a big factor because he was a great player. He didn’t leave until December 2004 so there wasn’t anybody available to come in and take his place. Julian O’Neill came in late but that didn’t work. We also lost some big players to injuries for a while that year.
Last year will always be remembered for John Kear’s rescue act. Those wins against Bradford and Castleford must rank as career highs for you.
John did an amazing job when he came in and really lifted us. Those wins were superb but the week before Bradford, everyone thought we were gone because we lost to St Helens while Cas beat Harlequins. That left us needing two wins and we needed Cas to lose to Salford. Luckily they did although Danny Sculthorpe still insists that if that game had been televised then Cas would still be in Super League because, in his opinion, they were denied decisions that would have been called differently by a video referee. But that’s just his opinion!
If you’d gone down how would you be feeling right now having heard that Wigan may have overspent last year?
I’d be pretty filthy about it and I really feel for Cas. But at one time it seemed to be us against Wigan to stay up. Cas were further up the league and looked to be safe.
John’s not just improved the team. He’s also brought in a lot of young English players.
Yes, he has. Matty Blaymire, in particular, has gone really well and John’s proved that there’s a lot of untapped potential in the National Leagues. Hopefully, with the new rules in place by 2011, we’ll see a lot more guys like him coming through.
Compared to 12 months ago is the club a much happier place to be at?
Yes, definitely. That’s mainly due to the results but the players play a part and there’s a great team morale here.
As an honorary Pom, do you support Great Britain against Australia?
Yes, I do. I see it as the Super League against the NRL and that’s the reason why. When guys like Gareth Ellis are playing, I have to support them! I don’t buy into all the hype that the NRL is vastly superior to the Super League. It maybe used to be but not any more. There isn’t the same depth in talent in Australia. Look at the stand-offs, they’ll struggle after Lockyer is gone because there isn’t really anyone else. Coaching standards and junior developments have improved hugely in England and we’re not far off NRL standards now.
There will be some changes to our competition between now and 2011. What changes would you like to see?
I’d like to see a team in Cumbria. When I played in the National Leagues, there were so many good Cumbrian players and the area deserves a Super League side to help those guys advance to the next level. I’m not sure about another team in France though just yet although Celtic Crusaders are going very well in the National Leagues so maybe they deserve a shot in Super League.