One of the game’s toughest-ever players – Kurt Sorensen, the former Widnes and New Zealand forward – spoke to me in 2008 as part of Rugby League World’s ‘Blast From The Past’ series.
Is the modern game too soft?
It’s not fair to say it’s too soft because the rules are different and the players are different so they don’t get away with a lot of the crap that went on when I played. But the modern game can be a bit boring and a lot of the players’ ability to think has been taken away. The halfbacks do all the thinking and the forwards are just battering rams. I look at old tapes and think, “That’s how they should be playing!” But it’s still the best football code around.
You were a world champion with Widnes 19 years ago. Doesn’t time fly?
It sure does! We were playing with a lot of confidence back in those days and we felt that we could beat anybody if we were on our game. But this wasn’t going to be easy because Canberra were such a gun team with blokes like Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley and all the rest of them. We were the underdogs and got off to a poor start, a couple of tries down. Then they had another disallowed which might have put the game out of our sight but in the end that was the turning point. We clawed our way back and then ran away with it.
What happened in your early days at Widnes?
I went over there to win trophies and they had a great team at the time, having just won the 1984 Challenge Cup against Wigan. Mates like Kevin Tamati and Vince Karalius were in England telling me how great it was so I went over there with high hopes. But things began to go wrong after I got there with more or less the guts of the team leaving. We nearly got relegated one year but we turned things around. Everyone knows who the superstars were but, for me, no one stood out. Everyone added their little piece to the jigsaw puzzle and I particularly liked playing with the local boys as much as the superstars.
You played with Martin Offiah and Jonathan Davies right at the beginning of their League careers. Were they always destined for stardom?
I had quite a bit to do with Martin early on and it was just amazing how his natural talent came through but he was also lucky to be in a team that gave him the ball in space. He learned the code and he learned it quickly, and he was very ambitious to get somewhere in a hurry. Jonathan, like Martin, was very determined to do well but he was more up against it than Martin because he was small and had to build himself up. His mentor was Doug Laughton who didn’t rush him and let him bide his time before he unleashed him. You could always see he had the talent though, and with that in mind, I think they were always going to make it to the top.
Your Widnes career ended at Wembley.
Yes, against all the odds, we got to Wembley which was a dream come true. Even though we lost, it was fantastic to play there. I scored and the plan was for me to come back on after my first spell but Richie Eyres got sent off and that buggered up those plans.
In Ray French’s book Match of My Life, you chose the second Test in 1983 between Australia and New Zealand at Lang Park as your career highlight.
Yes, that was fantastic because that series gave me the chance to play for the Kiwis again for the first time in five years. There was nothing in a player’s contract back then to say that a player had to be released to play in an international like there is now and for a lot of my Cronulla career, I didn’t play for New Zealand. But I came back for the first Test of that year with a lot of expectation placed on me, but unfortunately we lost and I played badly enough to get dropped for the second. But Mark Graham picked up an injury and I came back into the starting team and I was so determined to do well. Back then the Australians thought they had a right to win and they had a great team with players like Wally Lewis, Mal Meninga, Eric Grothe, Steve Mortimer and Ray Price but we outfought them and outplayed them to get a great win.
Who did you relish playing against?
Les Boyd. I always used to have a battle with him and, on the field, we never got on. I don’t think we played a Test against each other but I remember him playing for Wests or Manly against me when I played for Cronulla.
Do you have fond memories of your coaching career in Cumbria?
I enjoyed my time at Whitehaven and we had a decent side. I was player-coach there but then with Workington guaranteed a place in Super League I went to coach them for the Centenary Season, something I regret hugely. I was promised a lot of things by the bloke in charge, Kevan Gorge, but they didn’t materialise which was a big disappointment. They told me they had the money for this and that but it was a load of bullshit. I wanted to coach in Super League but they sacked me just before it kicked off. The bloke after me [Ross O’Reilly] didn’t fare much better either.
What are you upto now?
I’m working in the building industry on the Gold Coast. The new stadium here is tremendous and the Gold Coast have a good team. My sons play for Burleigh Bears, who I coached for a couple of years. Most of my life has been about football and I have great memories that will be with me until I die. I holidayed in Russia a few years ago and someone recognised me. You never get away from it! Rugby League was a big part of my life and non-sporting people never understand the passion involved.