‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Tony Rea in 2008.
When do you take up your role with the Brumbies rugby union side?
It’ll be in September. They’re in their pre-season now and start training again in October. I’ll be assistant coach, a similar role to Shaun Edwards at Wasps, with responsibilities across the whole thing.
Have you gone for coaching roles here?
I expressed an interest with Catalans which is what you do when those sort of jobs are up.
What are your memories of playing for Brisbane Brothers in the eighties?
I had four years there and played alongside Joey Kilroy and Mark Coyne, both of whom played Origin, Peter Gill who went on to play for us at London and Brett Le Man who played for Brisbane Broncos. We won the Grand Final against Redcliffe one year but unfortunately 15 of our 17 ended up going to Sydney to play in the Winfield Cup so the side was dismantled pretty quickly. The year after, the Broncos came along and until then the Brisbane league had been huge with players like Wally Lewis, Greg Dowling, Gene Miles, Mal Meninga, Alfie Langer and the Walters brothers at the various clubs. Grand Finals would attract 40,000 at Lang Park.
You moved on to North Sydney Bears where you spent seven years. What were the highlights of your time there?
When I got there we were second from bottom and when I left we were second from top. That was the real highlight – the improvement of the club over the whole period. We had Greg Florimo, Dave Fairleigh, Billy Moore and Gary Larson, all accomplished rep players. But I broke my leg in 1992 and that was probably the beginning of the end for me and I needed a shoulder reconstruction when I came back.
How did your 1994 move to London come about?
I was approached by Brisbane Broncos who had associations with London back then. They were after a leader and I was after a new challenge. John Ribot sold the idea to me and I was pretty excited about it. The club were in the old second division by then and there were plenty of personal challenges in front of me having moved there from the Winfield Cup. There was no gym, no rehab, no field to train on which was a shock and I had to search them out for myself. You could walk around feeling sorry for yourself over what you didn’t have or make it work so that’s what we did.
What do you remember of the players from that team?
Alfie’s brother, Kevin, was there. He was a real character and we all wanted to play with him. There was also Sam Stewart, Steve Rosolen, Darren Shaw, John Gallagher and Abi Ekoku. We had a fella called Justin Bryant who symbolised a lot of what we were about because he was a backpacker who just turned up to train with us. He had a great attitude. Mark Johnson, the South African was a real character too, as was Logan Campbell. They had a great combination. They were good times, they really were.
The club was fast tracked into the top flight following that season.
The Centenary Season was the learning curve for the club because we got beaten most weeks. We had to aim for some credibility and, in fairness, we got some good wins along the way. We knew were right at the start of something good. We went from virtual amateurs to being almost market leaders in the first couple of Super League seasons, finishing high up the Super League and getting some good crowds. That took some doing. We had Tony Currie in charge and players like Terry Matterson and Peter Gill, a core of experienced blokes, who set the right attitude at the club.
Did the criticism that you were a team of Aussies bother you?
That was coming from the north but we were living in London and weren’t bothered. We just wanted to get on with things.
Was the signing of Martin Offiah instrumental in changing that?
Yeah it was big for us. The press coverage on us multiplied by about five after he signed so it was a very smart signing just on that basis. We enjoyed playing with him and he fitted in with us. Shaun Edwards signed later and with those two on board, it made it a lot easier to sign other British players. They were important for Ady Spencer, Nick Mardon, Iain Higgins and other Academy players coming through. They helped us become a bit more British.
What led to you becoming Chief Executive in 1997?
The board approached me three-quarters of the way through 1996 and it made sense for me to do it. We had a very memorable year in 1997, coming second and doing very well in the World Club Challenge. Off the field we were a very good organisation with The Stoop was a great place to be on matchday.
What was it like working for Richard Branson who owned the club back then?
I can’t speak highly enough of him. I really liked him as a bloke and liked the way he went about things. He wasn’t very hands on because we had good people working at the club but he was still a top man.
Is Wembley 1999 still the club’s highlight?
Yes. I’d say so. It was such a privilege because a lot of teams don’t get to those sort of occasions. It was huge for the club and gave us a credibility boost that we needed. We had a lot of injuries, though, and it really showed in the last 20 minutes unfortunately but, before that, we gave a good account of ourselves.
People thought that making Wembley would be the key to the club making the big breakthrough, especially with Branson in charge. Why didn’t that happen?
There’s a bit of mythology there. It was never going to happen on the back of one day. People were hoping for a magic wand but we knew we still had a lot of hard work to do and just keeping the club going was a challenge. Maybe we went too quick at it and thought that signing a player was the answer instead of spreading the money throughout the organisation. Every player we signed like Mark Carroll or John Timu was going to be the answer but it’s not that simple.
John Monie was the next coach. What do you remember of him?
He wasn’t as switched on or as hungry as he had been at his peak, unfortunately. Maybe it was a timing thing. He’d have probably done a great job with the group before.
You were the next coach and took the club into the play-offs twice. Were they the highlights?
Yeah… I suppose. They’re pretty good for your record. Avoiding relegation is a very different challenge and we managed that too at first. We went broke a few times, changed grounds, changed owner and had to put up with a lot of adversity but our football programme and systems were good and we competed every week.
When were the systems put in place that went on to produce Louie McCarthy Scarsbrook, Michael Worrincy, Tony Clubb etc?
Back in 1997 when we signed a lot of young blokes like Giles Thomas and some of the blokes I mentioned earlier. This might be new to you guys in the north but it isn’t to us. We had a lot of young, English first teamers back then.
But the current crop look better…
That’s just how it works because the system’s been in place a while now and they’re better prepared for Super League but I’d still argue that Giles Thomas could have been just as good. He just didn’t get the same opportunities. For instance we sent Louie, Michael and Ade Adebisi to Hull a few years ago to help them develop. Giles didn’t get that chance.
Why did you step aside for Brian McDermott?
We needed a British coach. People tend to follow the leader and I can’t help my accent. Offiah and Edwards helped our profile and they encouraged young British players to sign and Brian does the same. We still needed the right bloke and Brian was definitely that.
Brian is obviously doing a great job. How important is it to the club that he stays?
It’s important to the club that he stays but if he doesn’t the place will still be fine and the club will move on. It would be important for continuity if he stays and he’s doing a terrific job. I like him as a bloke and he’s really looking after the place. But there’s nothing scary about someone leaving.