After a disappointing 2008 World Cup campaign, Leon Pryce is once again doing what he loves best – playing for St Helens and being part of a team that always seem to be present on Rugby League’s big occasions.
His first-team career started at Bradford in 1998 but even after winning an impressive haul of major honours, he left for St Helens after the 2005 Grand Final, disillusioned with his role in the squad of utility player and even occasional substitute.
But at Knowsley Road he has played for three full seasons in his favoured role of stand-off, alongside some of the finest players of the modern era, helping Saints to Minor Premierships and Challenge Cups in each season, although only one Grand Final success has materialised.
No longer an enigma, Pryce is one of Super League’s leading lights. He shared the 2007 Lance Todd trophy with Paul Wellens and was on last year’s shortlist of three to win the Man of Steel, the prestigious honour awarded to the best player in Super League.
A couple of days after Saints’ 23-6 round-two win at Huddersfield, I met up with Pryce to talk about England’s World Cup debacle, life at Saints and discovered that he still has unfinished business at Bradford Bulls.
The article was published in Rugby League World in early 2009.
Saints haven’t always made the best of starts in recent seasons, something which you’ve put right this year.
One problem that Saints always have is that we have a lot of players tied up in the end-of-season Test matches and international players only get four weeks pre-season which is absolutely pathetic. Teams like Harlequins, Wakefield and Hull KR, who have had early wins over us in 2007 and 2008, have months to prepare by comparison. We never read too much into those defeats but, even so, it was nice to get off to a good start this year.
How’s Mick Potter shaping up as Saints’ coach?
Everybody’s got a lot of respect for what Mick did at Catalans and he’s instilled a little more discipline and he’s tightened things up a bit. He’s brought in some new ideas too. It’s been a tough pre-season, especially for the guys who weren’t at the World Cup.
What are your goals for 2009?
Personally, I just want to improve as a player and do as well as I can. You can never stop improving when you play rugby. The team have the same goals every year – we expect to make finals and finish in the top two so we’ve got to work hard. That’s a long way off though.
Is the World Cup still in your head on a day-to-day basis?
I think it’s still in everybody’s head to be honest and it’s something that will be talked about all year because of how disappointing it was.
Can you put your finger on what went wrong?
It’s easy to try and blame people but as a player you’ve got to take responsibility. It didn’t go well for me on a personal level so I’ve got to take that on the chin and live with that – I might not get the chance to play in another World Cup. But I’ll hold my hands up – if you play well you get the plaudits and if you don’t play well you get criticised. As a player, you have to accept that.
Keith Senior said last month that the Saints and Leeds players didn’t gel and that it ultimately caused problems for the side. Do you agree?
Yeah I agree with what he’s saying. It’s down to the coaching staff to get players to bond and to gel and I don’t think that, as a group, we gelled enough. When you’re out there on the field, you’ve got to be as tight as possible and I don’t think we were. A couple of other players have said it too. There was too much concern about what went wrong in 2006 and not enough concern about the rugby we were playing. We should have concentrated more on the game rather than other things that weren’t as important as playing.
What sort of reception did you get in Australia given your infamous Bondi Beach comments of 2006?
[laughs] There were no problems! It’s one of those things that’ll always get brought up though.
How do you look back on your international career?
Other than the World Cup, I’ve always enjoyed playing in internationals. They’ve always been the best matches and most toughest games to play in. We were disappointed with the World Cup obviously – it’s left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth – but playing for Great Britain or England has always been an enjoyable experience.
Are you focused on playing for England again and putting things right?
No I’m not to be honest. I’m just concentrating on playing for St Helens. That’s all my focus is on.
Do you look at guys like Sean Long, Keiron Cunningham and Matt Gidley – fully refreshed, having not played in the World Cup – and consider international retirement?
It goes through your mind but I always think you’re a long time retired. I don’t ever want to look back on my career and wished that I would have stuck it about a little bit. I don’t want to do that. I’ll see how I feel at the back end of the year.
Do you think you’ll ever get a longer pre-season if you carry on playing internationals?
It’s a vicious circle. Super League wants to play as many games as it can for TV and for the revenue but when international players aren’t performing and they’re wondering why they probably have to do something about it. We’re playing nearly 40 games. Compare that to the Aussies and the Kiwis, who play a lot less. Look at their pre-season too – their season starts six weeks after ours. We always talk about these things but nothing ever seems to happen. We’ll probably just carry on doing this and then carry on wondering why we don’t perform internationally. You can’t get stronger and fitter with a four- or five-week pre-season. It’s impossible.
Would you support a reduced Super League season in order to achieve this?
It’s up to the people who run the game how they do it but our players need the best opportunity to improve. That’s all. We’ve been sat here for ten years saying this and nothing’s changed. We need a longer pre-season.
Does the lack of a pre-season contribute to the high number of injuries suffered in the modern game?
No, I don’t think so. It’s a tough game and it’s getting tougher every year. You’re going to pick up injuries up no matter what.
Eamonn McManus [the St Helens chairman] has been critical of the new Super League play-off system which will kick in this year. What are your thoughts?
I just don’t understand it. Why change it? The previous format was working well and I don’t know why it had to be changed.
What do you think of having a play-off system, of any sort, to decide the league champions?
I like having play-offs because it causes excitement and it’s great to play Old Trafford but emphasis gets taken away from the importance of week-in week-out consistency. Super League rewards the team who plays best on the night, not the one who is the most consistent over the course of the season. It’s a Cup run now, tagged onto the end of the season. The best team doesn’t always win the Challenge Cup does it?
Four consecutive Minor Premierships is a wonderful achievement but it’s only brought the club one Super League crown.
It’s absolutely gutting. What more can I say? But you have to take it on the chin and Leeds deserved both Grand Final wins. It’s upsetting for us but we have to applaud them. It happened to me at Bradford as well, in 1999, when we were clearly the best side but lost the final to Saints.
Has the Challenge Cup been devalued by the play-offs and the Grand Final?
Maybe so but you probably can’t have both. If you build up Super League and the play-offs to be so big then it will take emphasis off the Challenge Cup. But if you speak to anyone who plays rugby, the Challenge Cup is still the special trophy.
What’s your opinion on Super League’s Magic Weekend?
I don’t really have one, I just turn up and play. I can understand why they’re doing it because it’s important to spread the word and the Magic Weekend might grow.
Did you support Super League’s increase to 14 teams and the expansion into South Wales?
Yes, definitely. The old system of playing some teams three or four times was an absolute farce. The fairer we can make the game, the better. We have to keep it as fair and as even as possible. As for Celtic Crusaders, who knows whether it will work but we have to expand the game and not just keep it on the M62 corridor so good luck to them.
The rucks have been slowed down slightly this year. Do you prefer this or how it was last season?
It’s much better now. The game’s not touch and pass anymore which is where it was heading last season. It puts much more emphasis on skill to break the defence down eventually. We have to reward good tackles with a slower ruck too and last season the penalty counts got out of hand. A player would make a great tackle and would then have to jump off in case he gave a penalty away. It was ridiculous. Super League may be more exciting than the NRL [where the ruck is even slower] but that doesn’t help us at international level. What you need is the right balance between open, exciting rugby while still maintaining the contact area. At least we’re taking the right steps and it’s probably taken the World Cup for them to do that.
You’re regularly linked with a return to Bradford Bulls. Where does that come from?
[laughs] I don’t know! It’s probably because I still live there and I’ve got a lot of friends there. I’ve still got a lot of feelings for Bradford because it’s where I started off my career and it’s my home-town club. I probably feel that I’ve got unfinished business there because I never really played to my full potential when I was at Bradford. I’ve only really done that at Saints.
Do you feel you didn’t always get the chance to shine at Bradford? After all, you’ve only played stand-off regularly at Saints.
It’s one of those things I suppose – I played in a lot of different positions and I was on the bench a lot. I never got the chance to build my game because being a utility player doesn’t give you the chance to practise one position constantly. One week I was on the wing, then centre, then fullback, then stand-off, then I’d be on the bench, then I’d be dropped. As a result I played inconsistently but I’ve now had the chance to play in the same position for three or four years with the same scrum-half – Longy – as well someone like Keiron. I’ve seen an improvement in my game and my attitude to training has got better. I don’t blame it all on Bradford because I had to improve things. I don’t hold any hard feelings towards them but I wish I’d done a bit better at Bradford.
Can you see yourself playing for them again?
Who knows? Never say no. I think that every team likes to see home-grown players come through – look at Leeds and Saints – but when I look at Bradford I don’t see enough of them. There’s Sam Burgess but he could have come through in any team because he’s that good. There’s also Dave Halley but they’ve loaned him out to Wakefield. I think he’s an absolutely fantastic player. I’m sure the Bradford public want to see home-grown players, especially after Saints and Leeds have built their success on that. The message is there – we need to keep home-grown players coming through.
Was it a tough decision to come to Saints given the Bradford-Saints rivalry of a few years ago?
No, not at all. It was only tough because of the personal relationships I’d built up at Bradford. I still keep in touch with guys like Jamie Peacock, Lee Radford, Stuart Reardon, Henry Paul, Robbie Paul, Joe Vagana, Mick Withers and Paul Deacon; guys I’m very fond of – great people and great players. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of my time at Bradford. As for the rivalry with Saints, we have some good banter here about some of those finals and the controversial decisions like my try in 1999 that was disallowed and Joynty’s voluntary tackle.
Did the Bulls have a mental block of any sort when it came to playing Saints in a final?
No there was nothing like that. They got the rub of the green in some of those finals and that’s what it comes down to sometimes. We had the beating of them definitely, but they got some big calls their way.
Five Super League coaches have been at the Bulls in some capacity. You must have had a good rugby education there.
That’s right, there’s Jimmy Lowes, Brian McDermott, Steve McNamara and Mick Potter was an assistant coach there. I enjoyed my time there under Nobby [Brian Noble] even though I didn’t play my best rugby under Brian but he’s still a good coach in getting players united and gelled – something we didn’t have in the World Cup. We were always solid as a unit under Nobby.
Do you think he’ll turn things around at Wigan?
I hope so. If any coach has the experience of going through rough patches and coming through them, it’s Nobby. He’ll turn it round.
Lowes is under some pressure too at Warrington.
He’s under pressure and he knows it. With their squad, everyone knows they should be challenging for trophies. It’s a world-class squad and they’ve got international players in every position. Jimmy’s an honest bloke and he’ll tell you straight if they’re not playing well. He was a tough, hard, honest player and he’ll take that into his coaching.
Who were the big influences on you at the Bulls?
Robbie Paul was probably the main one – I looked up to him as a player and a person. I enjoyed a lot of the characters like Stuart Spruce, Bernard Dwyer and Mike Forshaw. They were the older guys and I thought they were great guys, so were Brian Mc and Jimmy who I still see now.
Saints have blooded a lot of young players recently. Tell us about them.
There are some very good players here. Kyle Eastmond has got massive potential if he keeps his head down and keeps working. Gary Wheeler has a big future and so do Gareth Frodsham, Tom Armstrong and Johnny Lomax. Tom, out of all of them, deserves the biggest wrap because he’s got his head down and worked his socks off. He’s got a great attitude and he’s learned so much in pre-season. It’s good to see Eamonn encouraging the young lads to come through in the way that we have a main group of 15 or 16 established players then kids after that so they’ll get plenty of games when there are injuries. You can’t knock that approach.
You’ve played alongside some of the modern-day legends too.
Longy’s one of my favourite players of all time. He’s absolutely class. His skill, eye for the game and understanding of the game are second to none. It’s a pleasure for me to play outside him and it’s the same playing with Keiron. I could go through the whole team! Look at Gids – unbelievable. A freak of nature! It’s great to play with players who make your game easier. There are world-class players in every position here.
What’s Tony Puletua brought to the squad?
He’s amazing isn’t he? He was amazing against Huddersfield. What I think we’ve missed at Saints is some really big size after we lost Paul Anderson, especially with Nick Fozzard and Jason Cayless missing a lot of last year. Tony’s been fantastic and he’s a really nice guy and everyone here has always admired what he’s done at international level and in the NRL. He’s a massive addition to our squad.
You’ve got two years after this one left on your contract. Do you think about the future after that?
Of course I do. I’d like to go into coaching, maybe bringing young players through. As I’m getting older I’m enjoying seeing them come through and it’s something I’d like to be involved in. It would be very rewarding to see them develop into world-class players.
Could you see yourself as a media pundit?
Definitely, I’d love to do that too. I enjoy things like that. Rugby League players have to consider every avenue after they finish playing because we don’t exactly earn millions.
Does it frustrate you that there aren’t more money-making avenues available to you as a top Rugby League player due to the comparatively low-profile of the sport?
It comes with the job and we know that. Union is miles ahead now in terms of profile and what players can earn. Rugby League isn’t as big a game and we need to do whatever we can to develop as much as possible.
Do you agree with Brian Noble that League clubs should be looking to buy high-profile rugby union players?
Why should we? Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and that’s Nobby’s. Union players are high-profile so it would bring media attention to the sport – I can understand that – but the money it would cost should be spent on developing our own young players, like we’re doing here at Saints.
Would you consider a move to rugby union?
It’s something I’d maybe like to do after my Rugby League career but not at the moment. Everyone who looks at the rugby union can see how much it has developed. I’d like to have a go at it eventually.
Has the NRL ever been a possibility for you?
I’m not bothered about the NRL.
Do we have too many overseas players over here?
It’s hard for me to answer that because a lot of my mates have come from the NRL! All I’ll say is that we have to give the best possible opportunities for youth to come through and for them to play as many first-team games as they can because that’s the only way they’re going to learn. Some great players come over from Australia and they’re great to watch but we shouldn’t have so many that our young players are prevented from getting a chance.