Like his brother, Robbie has led an amazing career, is a wonderful ambassador for the code and is such an enthusiastic interviewee. I was on a limit of around 1400 words for this ‘My Life In Rugby League’ piece for League Express, but by the time I’d run the tape I was up to about 3,000! Unfortunately, I didn’t keep what I had to discard, but here is what got published…
You came to England from New Zealand in 1994. Tell us about your Rugby League experiences prior to that.
My brother used to play with Stacey Jones’s older twin brothers and Stacey and I are the same age so we sparked up a really good friendship. I started playing as a three-year-old and I scored one try in my first season! I played my first representative game in the Under-9s and I stayed there through each age group to the Junior Kiwis. From being a 15-year-old I thought I could maybe make it as a professional. Some of the boys started to get signed up but I was the last. In the end, Auckland Warriors offered me $3000 over two years which was absolutely ridiculous. There was also interest from other Australian and English clubs and I was close to signing for Oldham but Henry had a word with his manager and Bradford ended up offering me a deal that meant I could be full-time.
Do you remember much about your early days in England?
I came to Bradford on 28th August 1994 and made my debut against Wakefield scoring two tries in a 34-0 win although Peter Fox, the coach, had reservations about my size. I was only 75kg whereas now I’m 88 but I made up for my lack of size in agility. When it came to me building myself up back then, we used to do a lot of our own weights. There were no schedules and no information about how to do things. It was pretty archaic until Super League came along when the money that came into the game brought along some great coaches and the conditioners and nutritionists that we needed.
Brian Smith and Matty Elliott came in but the Centenary Season was a strange one for us with so many players coming and going although things came together in 1996, finishing third and reaching the Challenge Cup final. There was so much going on at the club at the time as they really grasped summer rugby and the crowds soared.
Wembley 1996 and the Lance Todd Trophy. How big was that game for you at the time?
Looking back, it was massive but in the build-up not as much as you’d think. We’d watched so many of our heroes like the Iros and Ellery Hanley in finals from back home and Henry and I were big Wigan fans. I didn’t grasp how big it all was in the build-up and it still didn’t hit me until we were in the bus coming to the game and we could just see a huge sea of heads. I was nervous then. Martin Offiah in the commentary box questioned if I was old enough to captain a side in such a big game and he might have been right because I was asking myself what I was getting myself into! When the teams walked out, I could physically feel the force of the atmosphere almost knock me backwards and I just thought “Oh my God!”.
It was hot and I got dehydrated very quickly but once we were under way, the only difference between that and other games was that we couldn’t hear each other on the pitch. Looking back, that defeat hurts the most although it was the game that made my career and people made a big thing about me scoring the first hat-trick in a final. None of my memories come from the game itself, they’re just from watching the video afterwards. For a while, I used to get annoyed with people bringing it up all the time; I couldn’t shake it off but now I can appreciate it and look back on it in a proud way…even though we lost.
Tell us about Graeme Bradley. He ruffled a few feathers in his time in England.
In our first six games together he worked me so hard and he was Brian Smith’s voice on the field, telling me to do things that Brian had been trying to get me to do and physically pushing me forward at times to improve my support play, something I’d never paid much attention to. It became a huge part of my game after that. Graeme was a horrible bugger and I was so glad he was on my team! I’d defend outside him and he gave opponents some real punishment. He knew how to wind people up. He was skinny but with dense muscle and was so strong. The culture of that sort of player has been bred out of the game because it’s harder for players to get away with things now. The 70s, 80s and early 90s bred some horrible rugby players and I’m so glad I didn’t start playing until 1994!
Why didn’t Bradford Bulls work out for Shaun Edwards?
Shaun was used to playing in a world-class team and he’d played with some of the best ever players but he came to a real working class club if that makes sense. The players individually weren’t as good as what he was used to so it frustrated him. The mixture just wasn’t right between the Bulls and Shaun. Our players couldn’t rally around his weaknesses and, where Shaun was strong, our players were strong in different areas. There was no chemistry there.
Looking back, which is your favourite Bulls final?
Well the ’96 and ’97 finals put some money into the bank meaning we could recruit some world class players from which we could build. The 2000 Challenge Cup final was a massive relief because of the earlier losses in finals but my favourite is probably 2003 in Wales also against Leeds. The atmosphere was amazing and we wanted it so much. I should also mention the 2001 Grand Final against Wigan. The first half of that was the nearest to perfection I’ve ever been involved with.
You won the rugby union Middlesex Sevens in 2002 the day after being thrashed by Saints in Super League. That must have been a great day out.
Yes it was even though our bus broke down on that Friday night journey down. We switched to a small minibus and still didn’t get there until 5am when we had to be at the ground for 9am so we barely got any sleep. We decided that we couldn’t compete with them on the ground as we didn’t know where to put our heads or shape our bodies so we just decided to just keep it alive. There would be three union players at the ruck but only one of us so when we kept it alive, we had a six on four advantage out wide. They weren’t as strong as us either to be honest.
Another thing I remember was that we that took 12 players but one would have to miss out which was due to be Brandon Costin who had been out for a while with a broken bone in his hand but Nobby got on the ‘phone and told Stuart Duffy that he wanted Brandon to play and that Stuart Fielden was to miss out. I didn’t want to tell Stuart that he wasn’t playing nor did Stuart Duffy. No one did! After about 15 minutes in the lobby trying to work out who would tell him, we got Stuart Duffy’s ‘phone, rang Nobby and put Stuart Fielden on for him to tell him himself!
What are your favourite memories of your New Zealand career?
Any win against the Aussies is special obviously but the 1999 Tri-Nations was fantastic. It was a great tour for me. We beat the Aussies easily in the opening game and then Great Britain although we lost Stacey Jones after that. We came so close in the final too.
How did your transfer to Huddersfield arise?
After James Lowes retired, the plan was to use me at hooker but playing in such a big pack, the opposition would run at me instead of the bigger guys so I was using up so much energy with tackling and I wasn’t able to apply myself offensively. I told Nobby I wasn’t happy and he agreed so we signed Ryan Hudson for 2005 but we all know what happened there. So I’m back at hooker! Anyway, I got a call from a friend of mine who told me Sharpy needed a halfback and did I want to meet them. I said no and that I was contracted to the Bulls. I’d never ever considered leaving them so I wasn’t really interested. Then, I sat down and spoke to some people that mattered and they said there was no harm in talking so I spoke to Sharpy and Richard Thewlis. The club reminded me of Bradford in the early days and they wanted me to work within the community which I love doing. Also, Sharpy had analysed my game and wanted me in the halves again. The Bulls found Ian Henderson who was a Godsend to the club and Deacs and Iestyn had a really good partnership in the halves so I had a backseat role and coming off the bench never sat well with me. That’s where Huddersfield came in but I had no bitterness whatsoever towards the Bulls.
Is it a move you’re glad you made?
People told me it would recharge my batteries and it’s tested me as a person. Physically and spiritually, it’s totally energised me and I’ve learned a lot playing under Sharpy. Then there’s Paul Anderson, who I always thought was a complete boofhead! His knowledge of the game is fantastic though. The board at Bradford were fantastic and here, at the Giants, I’ve never met a chairman like Ken Davy. He came to watch us train once and he picked up all the cones afterwards. It’s the most humbling of all duties on the training field, the sort of job the juniors normally do but there was the chairman doing it! The club and the players are blessed to have someone like him.