Paul Highton

‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Salford’s Paul Highton in 2008.

How is your testimonial going?
It started in March after we came back from Jacksonville and got pre-season out of the way. I had an opening dinner and there’s quite a few events coming up like a Rugby League and Salford Legends Questions and Answers night on 15 April at the Willows. Andy Gregory and Karl Harrison are coming as well as a lot of other big names, past and present. I’m also doing a few things with Steve Hanley, the former England rugby union player. He’s the first Sale player to get a benefit and we’ve been mates for a while.

What have been the highs of your Salford career?
Well it was a big low that started one of the main highs off and that was being relegated in 2002 which was devastating at the time. But the chairman John Wilkinson and the coach Karl Harrison kept us altogether and kept us all full-time. We went through 2003 virtually unbeaten and even took our winning form into the 2004 Super League season, making a good start. In 2005, we did alright and then in 2006 we got into the play-offs. It was a great run over those three years and Karl did a great job.

Why did it go so badly wrong last year?
I’m still not entirely sure. Maybe we got carried away with the hype from the year before, maybe it was the personnel we brought in or maybe it was injuries. You could put it down to all sorts but injuries more than played their part. We kept expecting to get a win and for the season to kick on from there with a long winning run but it just never came. Karl had done a great job since 2003 and I was sad to see him go but Shaun McRae’s here now and his record speaks for itself.

Do Salford deserve a Super League Licence?
Without a doubt. Even putting performances to one side, we’ve got a chairman who is one of the most respected figures in the game and the club is run so well, never having been in debt and always having kept to the salary cap. Then there’s the new stadium of course. It will be absolutely fantastic for the whole city and we can’t wait for it to happen. The club has a very long-term outlook and we will be a great asset for the competition.

How did you get into the game?
I’d tried every other sport going! My dad took me to football, basketball, tennis and swimming but rugby was the one that I took to. I started playing at about ten for Oldham Juniors who then amalgamated with Waterhead and took their name. I stayed at Waterhead until I was 16 when I signed for Halifax.

Was Malcolm Reilly, the Halifax coach, a big attraction for choosing them?
Yes, he was a legendary figure in the game. A lot of my mates – Iestyn Harris, Paul Sculthorpe and Ian Knott – had gone to Warrington but Malcolm ‘phoned me and I went to see him and signed for them. Mal was the Great Britain coach at the time and a massive name in the sport so that was a definite attraction but I also thought it would be good to gain some independence and not just sign for Warrington because my mates were. It was great training under Mal. He did everything that we did because he was so fit and anybody who he beat at something was in trouble! I made my debut quite early although Steve Simms was coaching by then. It was the second last game of the 1994/95 season against Sheffield and Michael Hagan, who’s now coaching Parramatta, was our scrum-half and he put me over for a debut try.

Was it exciting to be playing in the lead-up to Super League kicking off?
Yes, it was. Going full-time was a big thing. I was training to become a surveyor but the chance to play full-time rugby was too good to turn down, and that was the same for all the guys. There was a lot of media interest in the game too and everyone was buzzing about the new era of the game and the change to summer rugby.

You were chosen to go on the Great Britain Academy tour in 1996.
That was fantastic. We went with the full Great Britain squad and we mirrored what they were doing, playing curtain-raisers to their Tests. Some of our idols were on that main tour – mine was Denis Betts – and it was great to see them play and socialise with them. Iestyn and Scully were on the main tour and it was great to see two lads about our age doing so well. I remember playing an Auckland Select side at Carlaw Park and although we’d been told all about it, nothing prepared us for what an intimidating place it was. It was a strong Maori community and they presented us with beautiful carved necklaces and introduced us to their traditional welcomes. That was a great experience and I really bought into the Kiwi way of living over there.

How did the rest of your Halifax career go?
After that tour, we had the World Club Championship tournament in 1997 which was great to be part of, going down under. We had a tough draw in that and got hammered in our home and away games. I played all of that season but left Halifax in 1998 and ended up taking them to court. I had agreed a contract with them and signed to that effect but went in to sign the actual contract the next day and they told me it wasn’t available anymore, which I obviously disputed. They told me if I disputed it, I wouldn’t play for them again but we went to court and I won. At the age of 19, I managed to get myself away as a free agent and it had gone on for five or six months. It was a restraint of trade. I wasn’t allowed to train with them but couldn’t go anywhere else. Steve Simms had moved on by then to Featherstone so I went there on loan for four weeks before signing for Salford.

What was Andy Gregory like to play for?
He might have his knockers but I thought he was superb to play for. I only spent about a year and a half under him but he was great for me.

What do you remember of your experiences in the 2000 World Cup for Wales?
The whole thing was fantastic. Firstly, we went to South Africa to prepare for the tournament and for us to get to know each other. From there, it was straight to the World Cup and we had some good players like Iestyn, Keiron Cunningham and Lee Briers so we fancied ourselves to do well but no one else expected much from us. Who could have predicted that we’d be beating Australia at some point in the semi-finals. It was a crazy game. Going in at half-time beating the Aussies was the weirdest of feelings given that they had players like Brad Fittler, Gorden Tallis and Wendall Sailor. It was a pretty quiet dressing-room because we couldn’t really believe what was happening! In the end, they ran away with it but we held out own until the last 15 minutes. We had too many Northern Ford Premiership players and we ran out of steam. Clive Griffiths was a great coach. He studied everyone and knew what made us all tick. He did a fantastic job bringing us all together at such short notice and creating such a good squad atmosphere which helped us a lot.

How disappointing is Wales’s failure to qualify this time.
Very. It’s hard to take and I feel bad that I was injured and missed the qualifiers. We feel that we should have qualified automatically having made the last two semi-finals, doing a lot better than England did in their semi-final in 2000 against New Zealand. It’s a big shame that we won’t be there and, from a personal point of view, I won’t have the chance to play in another. 

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