Stuart Donlan

‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Castleford’s Stuart Donlan in 2008.

Were you at Wembley in 1985 to watch your dad Steve play for Wigan in the Challenge Cup final?
Yes, I was there. It was a great day out, very exciting for someone my age – I was six! It was a great game too, one of the best finals ever. I’ve seen it a few times on video too and the tape’s safely in my dad’s loft now. He started at Leigh when I was three of four but I remember more from his time at Bradford. I don’t remember too much about any games but I can remember going to the grounds and being there.

Was he an influence on you playing the game?
Yes, but he didn’t exactly force me into it. I only started playing when I was 12 and that was through school. I played for Leigh Rangers too and my dad coached me – he always seemed to coach me because he was coaching the Leigh Academy when I signed for them having played for Rangers through to Under-16s.

You had some good coaches at Leigh.
Yes, I was pretty lucky in that regard. Steve Simms signed me before leaving for Halifax then Dennis Ramsdale took over for a bit before Ian Lucas. Then Eric Hughes came in and there was also Keith Latham and Norman Turley before Ian Millward took over in 1998 and Paul Terzis in 2000. There was plenty there for me to learn from.

Do you remember your first-team debut?
My debut was in the Challenge Cup in the first game of the 1997 season against Wigan St Pats. I scored a hat-trick so it was pretty memorable! I got three in eight minutes at the start of the second half. I was lucky not to get any injuries so I stayed in the Leigh first team right through to leaving a few years later.

What was the standard of the lower leagues like back then?
We did well in 1997, coming third in division two but in 1998 we struggled. Because teams had been kicked out of the top flight to make way for Super League just a couple of years earlier, there were some really good teams in our league and we struggled and we got hammered in most games. Teams like Wakefield and Hull KR were too good for us. Then in 1999, under Ian, we came fourth out of 18 in the Northern Ford Premiership, finishing only two points off the top. Ian won the coach of the year award and I won the young player award. Ian did a lot for my game, moving me to fullback. In 2000, we lost the NFP Grand Final to Dewsbury by just a point so we’d come a long way in just a couple of years. That was my last game for the club and it was the best we played all year.

What was Ian like to play for?
He was great for me. That positional change did a lot for my game but also, after he left he helped me get into Super League with Halifax by putting the word in for me around a few clubs.

Was there a possibility of him taking you to St Helens?
He spoke about it to me but when he went there he moved Paul Wellens to fullback and Wello’s never looked back has he? Ian rang me to tell me there was no room for me at Saints which was good of him and he helped me with Halifax.

How do you look back on your time at Halifax?
They signed me as a fullback but I didn’t play in the first few games. When I did come in, it was as a centre and that’s where I played most of my games for the club. In my second year, I got picked to play in the Origin series for Lancashire, who were coached by Ian. I played off the bench at the JJB on a Friday night and then started at Headingley the following Tuesday when we were 30-0 up at half-time! Yorkshire came back in the second half but we still won. They were great games to be involved in and it was great to be involved with such top players, considering it was only my second season in Super League. I didn’t actually know I’d been picked for the series until I heard my name read out on Sky!

2003 was a nightmare year for Halifax wasn’t it?
It certainly was. It was always going to be a tough year because we lost some very good players like Gavin Clinch and Andrew Dunemann. The club had no money and we knew from the start that it was going to be a tough year but we went to London in the first game and we won. We pushed Leeds close a couple of weeks later but injuries set in and we had to play some young kids. Then there were money problems and crisis meetings every week and we were even told one day that the club gate might be shut the next day! We then lost the only two points we had because of salary cap problems and we just couldn’t get a win. They didn’t miss a payment to the players in fairness but it was a terrible year on the pitch and once it was mathematically certain that we would be relegated, my contract was null and void and I started looking around for another club.

Why did you choose Huddersfield?
I’d almost agreed to sign for Castleford but my agent rang me and asked me to look at Huddersfield. I wasn’t that keen at first because they’d had a few seasons at the bottom of the league not long before but I went down and Jon Sharp had just been given the job that Tony Smith was leaving. I spoke to Sean Penkywicz who had just signed for them having met Tony. I met Jon and told my agent that I wanted to sign for them.

You joined them at a good time.
Yes, they were a club on the up with players like Brandon Costin and Stanley Gene there. We started well, beating Cas with a late try and after a few games we were top of the league. We also reached the Challenge Cup semi-final although we didn’t beat a Super League team to get there. Unfortunately I missed that game. Jon dropped me to 18th man because he wanted to go with an extra forward. I played in every other game that season though!

You went on to play in a semi-final two years later and then a final as the Giants reached Twickenham in 2006.
Yes, the semi-final against Leeds remains the highlight of my career. Brad Drew had come in and had made a big difference to the side and Robbie Paul’s experience helped us too. Then there was Mick de Vere, the most professional player I’ve every played with. A lot of the squad had played in the 2004 semi against Saints and that helped us against Leeds, because most of the lads knew what to expect. Nobody gave us a chance but we knew we could do it. We started well and dominated them and I picked up a couple of tries. The final was memorable too, of course. It’s a long week with all the press commitments before the game and there was a lot of interest on me because my dad had played in the ’85 final. My dad told me that the game would be over before I knew it and that’s how it worked out. We started well but we were on the back foot by half-time and they were too good for us in the end.

Why did you leave the Giants?
I was in the last year of my contract and went in for a new deal after the semi. But they asked me to wait and nothing ever came. My wife and I had a little girl, with another child on the way and I wanted to sort my future out so I signed a two-year deal at Cas. I enjoyed it last year, it’s a really friendly club and I made the right decision to come here.

How big a step down was National League One?
It’s a great comp but there’s no denying there’s a gulf in standard compared to the Super League and I mean no disrespect to anyone in that league. It was tough week in week out, knowing you could win without being at your best but we knew when we had to peak and we managed to do it when it mattered and that was in the Grand Final.

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