Mark Smith

‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Mark Smith from Widnes in 2008.

Is it frustrating to still be in the National Leagues when so many people rate you as a Super League-standard player?
It’s a very high standard league although the only frustrating thing is that people can tend to forget about you. But we’ve been to two Grand Finals and we’re confident of getting back into Super League via our license application. I’m loyal to Widnes and one reason is that a couple of years ago my little lad was born with a cleft lip and needed an operation so I needed to take a lot of time off which Steve McCormack granted me. You can’t buy that sort of thing and I’ve always been grateful. He was in hospital for six months but he’s fine now. But I want to be in Super League soon. I’m 27 and over halfway through my career.

How close were you to leaving Widnes after last season?
I hung on because there were a lot of rumours of new backers coming in. I sat down and spoke with Mick Nanyn, Dean Gaskell and Adam Sidlow for a couple of weeks but Mick decided he was leaving. Then myself, Dean and Adam spoke several times over six or eight weeks but we knew there was no real rush to make a decision. I’m happy I told them I wasn’t going to rush into anything because we’ve got a good set-up here again.

What’s it like starting a season on minus nine points?
We’ve laughed about it between ourselves but we know that rules are rules. The only thing I would say is that there are only 18 games, so nine points is a big chunk of that. In Super League or in football, teams have a lot more games to turn these deficits around.

You came second last year in ‘Rugby League World’ magazine’s top 50 National League players.
Coming second to Danny Brough isn’t bad I suppose! It’s nice for people to rate me so highly and it was a big confidence thing for me.

How do you remember your one year in Super League with Widnes?
It was a strange year. We started well and beat Bradford with Owen Craigie playing really well. We got close to a lot of sides but only just lost out. We finished second bottom but still got kicked out of Super League to make was for the Catalans.

How did you get into Rugby League?
I started playing at nine when my dad took me and my brother down to a local side near to where the JJB stadium is now. Our coach was a lady called Carol Fisher, who was the only female coach around so we used to get some stick for that but she treated us well and we learned a lot. The club ended up folding and I later played for St Judes in a team where about 17 of us ended up signing pro.

You made your debut in round one of 1999 – a 58-6 win over Hull FC. Not a bad start to the professional game!
It was a strange week to be honest leading up to the game. I’d done no pre-season with the first-team but suddenly John Monie pulled me into his office to tell me to train with the first team and the next day he told me I’d be on the bench against Hull. In the end I played about 65 minutes! It had all happened pretty quick for me. Robbie McCormack had left, leaving Jon Clarke as first choice but he had some misfortune and Ian Talbot broke his arm. So I was next in line.

It was a below-par year for Wigan but you played 17 games including the last ever game at Central Park against Saints.
That was the big one that year, it was a fantastic day. I’d gone to Central Park as a child, sometimes sneaking in under the turnstiles and I just lived less than a mile away. It was such an emotional day and to be part of that day was very special. They could have sold that game out four times over. I remember Jason Robinson having a blinder, scoring and creating tries. Overall it was a great season for me and I also played for England Academy against the Aussies but I was a bit overawed at first at Wigan, playing with such great players and I was the youngest by a few years.

How frustrating was it to play a lot less for Wigan over the next couple of years?
In 2000 and 2001 I had a lot of quality nines ahead of me but I’d have loved to play a lot more and it was frustrating. But I played under a lot of coaches at Wigan, almost one a year and that made it hard. I was being overlooked back then. It was difficult but still enjoyable and I got back into the side more regularly.

One of the players in front of you was Terry Newton.
Funny you should say that because Terry was over at Widnes the other day. He was great at Wigan and is still a top player now. He should be England’s hooker at the World Cup. People think he’s rough and tough but he’s a great bloke off the field and people don’t realise how smart he is on it. He gets written off but keeps proving the critics wrong.

Is Murrayfield 2002 the highlight of your career?
No doubt about it! That year Maurice Lindsay kept saying how important local players were and we had a lot that year. It was phenomenal to win the Challenge Cup against St Helens and that’s why you get into Rugby League; to win games like that with your mates. Saints were massive favourites but I can remember staying up dead late the night before with some of the younger lads without a care in the world.

You played in another final in 2003 – the Grand Final defeat to the Bulls.
Walking out in Manchester was so different to Murrayfield because the crowd is on top of you and the noise is unbelievable. The hairs on your back really do stand up! We played OK that day but Leon Pryce got Brian Carney with a tackle that a lot of people thought was illegal, and Brian had scored those two amazing tries against Leeds the week before. Brian had to come off and I think that’s where people got the grapple tackle from. It was a real turning point and Bradford went on to put the game out of reach afterwards. Talking of Brian, he was another freak player – I was lucky to play with so many at Wigan.

What was behind you leaving Wigan?
It was a bit strange to be honest. At the end of 2004, after I’d played over 20 Super League games, I sat down with Maurice and agreed an extra 12-month deal. But then Denis Betts called me into his office to tell me that the club had signed Wayne Godwin and I could go if I wanted to. It was a shock because it was all in a ten- or 12-week spell and I’d never been in a situation like. I ended up speaking to Frank Endacott and went to Widnes within a week and a half and was rushed into their pre-season. I wasn’t angry or bitter with Wigan but they had a big send off for Craig Smith and Adrian Lam who got mementoes and I’d been there longer and got nothing. But that’s Rugby League and I had to move on. Maybe I should have left Wigan a year earlier. Young lads think there’s no life after Wigan but there is. 

This entry was posted in Interviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *