In my time as a rugby league supporter, James Pickering remains my favourite-ever player. The big Fijian was sensational for Workington Town during their rise from division three to division one between 1992 and 1995. Amazingly, third-division Town managed to sign him while the reigning Winfield Cup champions, Canberra Raiders, wanted him. This interview was published in Thirteen in 2005
James, what are you up to at the moment?
I work for an excavation and development company here in Sydney and am assistant coach at the Sydney Bulls in the Jim Beam Cup. I played for them a few years ago and then retired. Then they got a new coach and was persuaded to come back and join the coaching staff.
You were recently named in an all-time Town XIII in Rugby League World. That must be very flattering?
Oh really? For sure, that’s great. That’s unreal, very flattering. I suppose there were a lot of Workington heroes who had represented Great Britain.
What were your first impressions of England seeing as you made your debut in the winter of 1992 in the old English 3rd division?
My first impression was how cold it was! I’d never heard of Workington Town but it was obvious the club had a great history and I loved every minute. I’d never met a whole town so passionate about their football like them. I tell a lot of the young guys here about playing football in England with all the singing and the great atmosphere. They just don’t understand how fanatical English supporters are. I saw a lot of Europe and made heaps of friends over there.
You turned down a chance to play in the Winfield Cup to join Town didn’t you?
Yeah I did actually! It was Canberra Raiders as well who went on to win the Winfield Cup in 1994. I’d come to Australia for a holiday and was living in Cronulla with some friends and trialled with the Sharks but in the last pre season game I broke my arm. I had a friend in Newcastle who lined me up with Lakes United which is where I met Peter Walsh. I headed back to New Zealand after that and when Spider got the Town job he got in touch and I agreed to go over with him. The very next day Tim Sheens rang to see if I wanted to go to the Raiders. I actually rang Peter and told him and he said he’d understand if I went to Canberra but I talked to my father who said I’d given my word to Peter and should honour it and I don’t regret it at all.
Town enjoyed some wonderful successes in your time at the club. What are your abiding memories of your time in Cumbria?
The lakes area was really beautiful and we’d drive round it a lot. And the people were so friendly and knew their footy. I had such a great time there and the fans were great. So were the rivalries with Whitehaven, Carlisle and Barrow. If we won everyone wanted to go out in Whitehaven! And that Uppies and Downies game! I couldn’t believe that! Myself and Mark Mulligan shared a place opposite the bus station and we looked down from our lounge window and we just couldn’t believe it! Crazy!
I remember the 36-10 win at the Recreation Ground in 1993. You had a great game in that. You know Town haven’t won there since?
Oh really? The 0-0 draw [Dec 1993] was pretty amazing too. Only time I’ve seen or played in one.
Which matches still stand out for you?
Probably the two at Old Trafford especially when we beat London in 1994. Coming to Town when they were struggling and winning the second division title and getting into the Big League was fantastic. But I also remember some of those late defeats especially against Leeds on that opening night of 1993-4. We deserved to win that.
What were the main factors in that season being turned around so convincingly? Was it just a question of taking a couple of months to adapt?
Yeah I think so. Not all of the players being full time didn’t help. Peter recruiting Mick McGurn as a fitness conditioner made a big difference. The sessions were hard but a lot of us really benefited. Signing guys like Rowland Phillips was big too. That Welshman was totally mad!
Did Rowland make your job easier?
Yeah, for sure. He was a great player but all the guys we had there I wouldn’t have swapped for anyone. We could have maybe done with another match winner but we were all great friends and that got us through the hard times. If the club had had the funds and could have developed like the other clubs have done and gone full time then they’d still be up there now. So many good footballers come from the area. It’s a shame there isn’t a Super League club there.
What was the situation with you leaving Town? A lot of Town supporters weren’t sure whether you’d be coming back or not.
When I signed with Canterbury? It’s a funny story because I was approached by Tim Sheens again but Peter Moore (Canterbury Chief Executive) sent a contract over and I just thought that with someone of that high stature making me an offer I should go with it. I wanted to stay with Town but on the other hand I had a daughter and her mother and I had split up and they’d gone back to Australia. It was a chance to go back home and see my family and be part of my daughter’s life. I just thought it was time to move back home. But the memories of Town will stay with me forever. I’ve even still got all my old jerseys!
I remember your great form before your first injury at Canterbury. Also a game with Parramatta with Vince Fawcett scoring twice for Parra was televised in England.
Oh was it? I loved it there but had a hard time with injuries and missed the Grand Final win over Manly.
Missing the chance to captain Fiji in the 1995 World Cup must have been hard to take?
My last Test for Fiji was a couple of years after I left Town but, yeah, I broke my ankle before the end of the 1995 Winfield Cup and was gutted to miss the World Cup.
Have you followed Workington’s fortunes since you left?
I have. We get the English results in Big League magazine here and I always look at their score. And when I played at Castleford in 1999 I took the missus up to Workington and to Derwent Park which was good. I got a shock seeing all the windmills though!
How do you remember your time at Cas?
I didn’t really want to back to England at first. I was at the Roosters but just couldn’t get on with Phil Gould. Not as a coach but as a person and a few of us weren’t really part of the clique. We were excited about going back to England again. I trained really hard before going over but tore my Achilles tendon in the very first training session! I struggled with injury then then my missus fell pregnant and went back to home. At the end of the year I decided to stay in Australia and went back to Canterbury. I did all the pre season there but after the first couple of games of the season I began to lose interest. We played Wests Tigers on a Saturday, spoke to my missus afterwards and decided to retire. I made an emotional speech to the lads on the Sunday and they thought I was joking! But I said I’m off and went surfing for 3 or 4 months!
Are you still in touch with Peter or any of the players?
Yep I speak to Peter every two weeks. He coaches the Northern Blues in the Newcastle area. He’s had a lot of success. Similar to Town they were struggling but Peter’s taken them to a Grand Final and before that a couple of semi finals. When we meet up we have a few beers and if I’m at his we put on some Town videos! I’m not really in touch with many of the players apart from Kyle White and Mark Mulligan. Mark rings me up every few weeks when he’s had a few beers! He’s up in Queensland working as a head foreman at an abbatoir. I bumped into Kyle at a sevens tournament at the beginning of the year. He’s as big as a house that bloke!
Did Mark carry on playing after he left Workington?
I think he played on the Central Coast but not for long and drifted out of the game. He went back to work on his parents’ farm
What do you remember of Des Drummond?
He’s not still playing is he?!
No but he did play for Great Britain in 2001 in a legends series against Australia while the Ashes series was on. All the great names from the past were involved and both games ended in draws but Des picked up an injury.
Right. It was quite funny because when Des came and joined Town Mark and I remembered him from a test match in New Zealand. Mark played for a Northern Rivers side as a seventeen year old in a curtain raiser. So when he joined we thought he must have been about 45. He never did reveal his real age! But he was great for everyone and he was always involved in community work helping under privileged kids.