‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Hull’s long-serving halfback Richard Horne in early 2007.
How did you get into Rugby League?
My dad and eldest brother used to play so I’d go and watch them and have a kick about at the same time. My dad then started to coach and my next-door neighbour was also a coach too so there were plenty of influences around me. All my friends were into rugby as well. When I got to nine or ten, I’d think how good it would be to play it for a living. I played for Hull Schools along the way and also for Yorkshire when I was 14 or 15 and was picked up by Hull FC as a 15-year-old.
You made your first-team debut as a 16-year-old. Tell us about those early years.
It was 1999 when I made my Hull debut at fullback at Leeds. We lost but I couldn’t have asked for a better debut than at Headingley in front of a great crowd. The atmosphere was superb and it was a great experience. That year I also played for the England Academy against the Aussie Schoolboys who had Lyon, Gasnier and Anasta in their side. Gasnier was the one who stood out and obviously they’ve all gone on to have wonderful careers. We had Chev Walker, Dave Hodgson, Chris Thorman, Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Matt Diskin and we pushed them really close, only losing the second game by two points.
When did you first start to feel like a Hull FC regular?
More or less straightaway because we had a really bad injury crisis at the time so guys like myself, Paul King and Paul Cooke came in. It was bad for the club at the time but probably a good thing in the long run as we all took our opportunities.
Twenty-three young players made their debuts in the first two rounds of this season’s NRL where there appears to be a very clear pathway for outstanding youngsters to make the first grade. However, a lot of young English players have to wait for injuries to get their chance. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure but it’s definitely the case that youngsters here generally have to wait for injuries. Maybe there’s a lot more pressure on coaches to perform with the Board and supporters asking questions if they were to go with a young kid over a bigger name Australian or English player.
Your next representative football was for Great Britain against Australia in 2001. You were surprisingly named to start the first Test opposite Andrew Johns but ended up coming off the bench.
David Waite had a word with me and told me what would be happening so I knew I’d be a sub but wearing the number seven jersey. It was great to play and to play against Johns. It was a dream international debut, beating the Aussies. Paul Sculthorpe had a great game that day and I was absolutely buzzing after the game. My family were made up too. Maybe we weren’t so focused for the second Test when we were thrashed at Bolton but you learn from these things and we’re getting there at international level and hopefully we can have a good series against the Kiwis and then make the World Cup final.
In 2003 Waite picked you on the wing in the Ashes. I know you’ll probably say you’d happily play anywhere for your country but, looking back, was it a strange selection?
Yes, it was definitely. It was strange considering there were other wingers he could have gone with. He said my strengths were scooting with the ball and my broken field play and that’s why he wanted me there. It was strange not being in the middle of the park and I got caught out of position a few times.
What did you think of Shaun McRae and John Kear?
Shaun was a good coach with big attention to detail. No stone was left unturned when it came to the opposition with long video sessions etc. He did a great deal for myself and brought me on heaps. He was a good person and good for the club. John was Shaun’s assistant for a while which made the change smoother. John’s big on defence which helped us tremendously especially in the wrestle and you can see that with Wakefield now. They’re more solid and they work hard on the floor.
Is the 2005 Challenge Cup final against Leeds the highlight of your career?
Yes, definitely. It was a fantastic occasion. Once you’ve had a taste you want to go back especially with this year’s final being at Wembley.
Did you think you’d blown it when Leeds came back at you in the second half?
I don’t know about blown it but at the back of your mind you know it was going to be tough. We knew we’d get another chance somewhere along the line though and we did. Shayne put the kick in, they knocked on, we regathered and Cookey scored. It was unbelievable.
What about last year’s Grand Final. Saints were huge favourites so was it such a disappointment to lose?
It’s always a disappointment to lose because we knew we had the ability to beat them. The first half was end-to-end stuff and knocking each other about but the big blow was Leon Pryce’s try just before half-time. That knocked us for six because both teams were tired and lethargic at that point but that try revitalised them and took a bit out of us. Looking back, Saints deserved to win the competition but we still thought we could beat them just as we did at Knowsley Road last season. It wasn’t to be but we had a good year.
Hull haven’t made the best of starts to 2007 but did Hull KR’s early season performances put extra pressure on you this season?
Yes, they probably did but things have turned around a little. They’ve had a few injuries to key players like Webster and Chester and they’re finding out that it’s all about having the squad in Super League. We’ve got some good young players who can come into our side when there are injuries and, despite the Bradford result, we’ve started to pick up a few results and hope to be up at the right end of the table pretty soon.
How did you feel when Sean Long left the Tri-Nations party last year? Did you have mixed feelings given that it gave you your opportunity?
I don’t know about mixed feelings. Sean wasn’t coping with things well so it was a strange situation but it did open up a chance for me and Rob Burrow I suppose. I didn’t find out until the day before the Brisbane Test that I was in and there was a lot of pressure on us because we had to win to make the final. I didn’t make the best of starts with Gasnier getting on the outside of me twice but I got into it and settled down. They were the better team though.
Was it tough on you because you hadn’t played any Rugby League since the Grand Final?
Yes, I hadn’t played for six weeks and it was pretty hard to find my feet. I had little match fitness which is a big thing and I was caught out a little bit.
Did Long’s international retirement surprise you?
A little bit because I thought he’d maybe stay on for another year to play the Kiwis in order to go out on a high bearing in mind what had happened in Oz. On the other hand, it’s such a tough fixture list, playing the internationals straight after the Grand Final. Then you get a month off and you’re back training again for the new season.
What did you think of Brian Noble’s coaching and team selections? Rumour has it some of the players were unhappy on the tour.
I knew early on each week that I wouldn’t be playing so it was tough. Some of his selections were a bit strange and they weren’t really explained but it was his job and you had to go along with it. Some things could have been done a lot better in a lot of respects. There hadn’t been a British tour for so long so it was a learning curve for us as well as the organisers.
Tony Smith’s the new coach and your main rival for the halfback spot, Rob Burrow, plays for him at club level. Might that count against you?
Well, I’m more worried about the way Rob’s playing! At the moment, Rob is playing so well that you couldn’t argue with his selection. Tony will go on performances and hopefully I’ll be playing well enough at the end of the season to get in. There’s time in the year yet for myself to pick up.