Joe Vagana

‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Joe Vagana in 2008. The big New Zealander was a brilliant player for Bradford before he retired at the end of that season.

When you signed for Bradford, did you anticipate staying this long?
No! It was snowing and I had just arrived with my wife who was pregnant and with two young kids. I wanted to know where the summer rugby was. I’d signed for three years and didn’t think I’d last long. But eight years on, I’m loving life here with two more additions to the family. My three older kids have Yorkshire accents and I’m picking up a bit of a twang myself.

How big an honour was it to be named in Bradford’s team of the century last year?
It was amazing. Just to be mentioned as a possibility was an honour but when I heard I’d made the side, it was fantastic, especially with it being picked by the fans.

At Bradford, you were part of the ‘Awesome Foursome’ of props, the foundation of the team.
Yes, it was a nice tag to have. Brian McDermott was the first person to say hello to me out of all the English guys – I already knew Robbie and Henry Paul as well as Tevita Vaikona. Macca made some remark and I remember everyone laughing at me. It broke the ice and that was important. The boys then showed me a video tape of Macca against Leeds Rhinos flooring three guys with three punches so I made a mental note never to get on the wrong side of him! I remembered Baloo [Paul Anderson] and Stuart [Fielden] from the World Cup and they were great players. We did our bit for the team and reaped the rewards.

You’ve won three Grand Finals, three World Club Challenges and a Challenge Cup at the Bulls. Do any of those finals stand out above the others?
The ones against Leeds probably! We beat them in the 2003 Challenge Cup final and the 2005 Grand Final, both very special wins.

What have been the low points?
Well the most recent is breaking my arm and sitting in the grandstand watching us lose 44-2 to Leeds, unable to do anything. Being injured is so frustrating, not just not able to play but having to do your rehab alone while they’re out training isn’t much fun. Hopefully I’ll be back in four or five weeks. 2005 may have ended with a Grand Final win but there were some real low points along the way, being hammered by Leeds and Saints with a lot of pressure on us. People were pointing fingers at us and it wasn’t easy to even step out of the house back then. Then, of course, there’s Sean Long’s drop goal at the end of the 2002 Grand Final, when we lost to Saints by a point. I saw that last year when Sky showed some great Grand Final moments and my heart sank again. It wasn’t just the drop goal in that game, we should have had that late penalty for the voluntary tackle.

How do Steve McNamara and Brian Noble differ as coaches?
They’ve got their own styles. Steve has played in the Super League era and brought that experience to our team as well as different training techniques. Brian was an excellent coach too and his record speaks for itself. Both are great guys off the field who listen to the players and that’s an important quality to have.

You get a few mentions in Jamie Peacock’s new book.
What can you say about JP? He’s an awesome guy on and off the field. He leads by example on the field and he was a great captain for us.

How good can Sam Burgess become?
He has a lot in common with JP and the sky’s the limit for him. He’s already made a big name for himself with his Great Britain performances last year and I’m sure there are Australian clubs who are interested in him. If he keeps improving at the same rate, he’ll be part of the England team for years.

How do you assess the Bulls’ current season?
It’s not been our worst start but it’s not been our best either. The Leeds defeat was embarrassing but we’ve made mistakes that we can sort out. We’re not that far off and it’s still early but we know how much work is still to be done.

In your latest column on the Bulls website, you looking forward to racing Dwain Chambers!
Well now I’m out of the side with my arm injury, I’m doing a bit extra on my speed and if I come up against him, I reckon I could hold my own agaisnt him! I wonder if he’s ever been in a race with a 20-stone prop before…

Is it possible for someone who’s never picked up a rugby ball to make it in Super League?
No. He’s got the build but Rugby League is the toughest sport in the world and he’s not used to running into brick walls.

How did you get into Rugby League?
There was a Rugby League club 300 yards from my house and I have three older brothers who all played there. I started at about seven and all of the kids aspired to be Mark Graham or Kurt Sorensen. I knew that the game was for me straightaway.

You played for Auckland Warriors in 1995, their inaugural year.
I didn’t play in the first game, it took me about five rounds to get into the side. We had some big names – Dean Bell, Andy Platt and Denis Betts – and Rugby League in New Zealand was absolutely buzzing in 1995.

What were the highlights of your Warriors career?
That first year is right up there. It’s probably one of the few times that Rugby League has been on a par with Rugby Union in New Zealand. There was so much interest in us and the whole country seemed to jump on the bandwagon. 1997 was also good for me too because I won the Player of the Year award at the club.

Your time at the club came to an end in 2000 with off-field problems overshadowing everything else.
There was a takeover and new management who wanted to change the whole club and cut pay packets in the process. It wasn’t the best of times at the Warriors but it was a blessing for me because I ended up at Bradford. The club only kept hold of a few players like Stacey Jones and Ali Lauitiiti and built the team around guys like that.

Before you started at the Bulls you played in the World Cup. What was behind your dust-up with Keith Senior in the semi-final?
I’ve got no idea! These things happen and you get off the field and forget about it. I’ve run into Keith a few times since and we’ve had a bit of a giggle about it.

Did you expect to beat England so easily?
Of course not. Especially as the competition was in England and they had some great players like Keith, Paul Anderson and Stuart Fielden. But everything we touched turned to gold that day.

Did you feel that the score in the final didn’t reflect your performance?
It definitely didn’t. We pushed Australia close for 65 or 70 minutes but you can’t relax for a moment against them and they scored a few late tries.

How do you look back on your Kiwi career?
With immense pride – although it’s been disappointing not to play for them since I moved to England. It hurt for a few years but I’ve got over it and I support them when they play. I made my Kiwi debut in 1996 against the Papua New Guineans and then played against the touring Great Britain side that year. My last game for the Kiwis was the World Cup final four years later. I’ve got a good record against Great Britain – unbeaten in every game I played against them and it’s been good to remind some of my teammates over there about that! I also enjoyed some great tussles against the Aussies, getting wins in 1998 and 1999. I was fortunate to play under Mark Graham, my childhood hero and alongside legends like Matthew Ridge and Steve Kearney.

Are you hoping to represent Samoa in the World Cup?
Yes but I also understand that they have a lot of good props. Fingers crossed I get selected but maybe they won’t to pick a 29-year-old.

Well, 29 or 31. Maybe more. Perhaps I should get the same guy who wrote out Stanley Gene’s passport to do mine!

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