This interview with the 1985 Golden Boot winner, Brett Kenny, appeared in Rugby League World in 2010 as part of their ‘Guest Room’ series, with readers submitting the questions.
ONE of the most naturally gifted players to play the game, Brett Kenny’s place in Rugby League folklore is firmly secure, having excelled for Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia and, of course, Wigan, in a marvellous career that spanned 14 seasons from 1980 to 1993.
Wally Lewis, his great State of Origin foe, described him as “the best five-eighth I ever faced” while Peter Sterling, his halfback partner for club, state and country, noted in his autobiography that, “Brett is the most naturally gifted player I have ever seen – the closest thing to poetry in motion that is possible to imagine. Some of the stuff I’ve seen him do over the years has been astonishing.”
As a raw 19-year-old, Kenny was elevated to Parramatta’s first-grade side and in his second season, under the guidance of the great Jack Gibson, his two tries helped them to their first-ever Premiership win against Newtown Jets. It took the club 34 years to land the big prize, it took Kenny just a season and a half.
Incredibly he repeated those try-doubles in the next two Grand Finals against Manly as the Eels chalked up three in a row, and in the classic hard-hitting defensive final of 1986, he had two tries disallowed as Parramatta edged out rivals Canterbury 6-4.
By this time he had introduced himself to British crowds with some aplomb. In 1982 he famously relegated Lewis, the vice-captain, to the Kangaroos substitutes’ bench as the Invincibles swept all before them in England and France. Four years later, he was in the centres as they repeated their unbeaten tour.
And it was 25 years ago, on the fourth of May 1985, that he stamped himself into Challenge Cup folklore with one of the most wonderful performances in a Wembley final, helping to condemn Hull, and his great friend Sterling, to a 26-22 defeat with a fine exhibition of attacking play. He became the first overseas player to win the coveted Lance Todd trophy as man of the match.
The following year, he was awarded the Golden Boot by Open Rugby, the predecessors of Rugby League World, which crowned him the greatest player on the planet, recognising his superlative achievements of 1985.
He retired in 1993 having played 265 times for the Eels, a record that was only broken this April by Nathan Hindmarsh, and 17 times for Australia.
What was going through your mind whilst walking onto the pitch for the 1985 Cup Final?
Firstly, it was amazing to be on the ground a day or two before the game when the place was empty and we did our traditional walkabout. We had a ball and chucked it around for a while before being kicked off by a couple of stewards in no uncertain terms! The day itself was fantastic and it was such a wonderful experience to play in front of so many people. The noise just hits you when you walk out. I’d never played before such a big crowd and I didn’t afterwards either. It was a magical day. I got a bit of criticism for having my hands in my pockets before the game when the dignitaries were being introduced to the players but it was never meant to be rude – it was just somewhere to put my hands. I took them out when I was introduced to them.
What are your particular memories of that game?
The first half was fantastic for us and everything we tried seemed to come off – we scored some great tries. But they pulled us back in the second half and it got a bit nervy. I rank the game right up there with the Grand Finals I won with Parramatta – it was a great experience.
Has Sterlo forgiven you for stealing his 1985 Lance Todd Trophy yet?
Haha! He played really well didn’t he? We did it tough in the second half with Sterlo in great form. It was certainly a nervous ending for us when James Leuluai scored that try pretty much straight from our kick off. Peter and I used to talk about the game a fair bit when we were back in Australia and loads of people used to ask us what it was like to play at Wembley.
After your stint with Wigan, did any other British clubs try and tempt you back for another spell in the English game?
If they did I wasn’t interested, because I’m the sort of person who doesn’t want to do something again it I was successful the first time. I won the Challenge Cup which was unexpected for me when I signed so if I’d gone back and won nothing, it would have been a huge disappointment.
Why did you sign for Wigan?
I didn’t really think about going to England but a few of my mates from Parramatta signed for English clubs so I began to think about it. I originally wanted to sign for the same club as one of my Parra teammates like Hull where Sterlo and John Muggleton were or Leeds were Eric Grothe was and I think a couple were at Oldham, but I ended up at Wigan. It couldn’t have worked out better though because I have so many fond memories of my time there and every time I go back to England I’m made to feel so welcome.
Other than the Cup Final is there another game you particularly remember from your time at Wigan?
Yes, my first game away at Warrington. I was told that there was a bit of local rivalry there and with my first touch I passed back on the inside to John Ferguson and got an elbow to the back of my head. ‘So this is how it’s going to be!’ I thought. I remember games at Central Park very well because it was a great place.
Why did you switch off and fail to perform in your last match for Wigan, the play-off match at St Helens, the week after the epic victory over Hull at Wembley? Many of the Wigan players played their hearts out at St Helens but you did not seem interested, and we lost. Many Wiganers haven’t forgiven you for that last memory of an otherwise glorious short stay at Wigan.
I don’t believe that they haven’t forgiven me for a second! When I talk to Wigan fans even now they tell me the regard that they had for me and I’ve been back several times. A journo over here totally misquoted me about that game and came up with a load of rubbish and I ended up taking legal action. I had a wonderful time at Wigan and I gave my all in every game, but you can’t always be at your best and to expect someone to is a little bit unfair.
My name is also Brett. I was born in 1985 and my father named me after you. Because of this I’d consider you the player that I most regret not been able to see play live. Who do you wish you had seen play from before your time?
That’s a great compliment! I wish I’d seen Bob McCarthy play as well as Bob Fulton and Reg Gasnier. I’ve seen tapes of them but wish I’d seen them in the flesh.
If you could only keep one of the following which would it be – the Lance Todd Trophy, the Golden Boot Award or the Australian Sports Medal?
They all meant a lot to me. I probably didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the Lance Todd at the time – I suppose I treated it like a regular man-of-the-match award, but afterwards people explained it to me and pointed out I was the first overseas winner of it. Similarly the Golden Boot was something I didn’t know too much about – I actually thought it was for goalkickers at first! Two gentlemen from the Open Rugby magazine approached me and explained it was for the best player in the world and that was fantastic to hear. I had to keep it to myself until the presentation function, which was pretty hard to do because when you win something like that you want to tell everybody about it. I’d forgotten all about the Australian Sports Medal until I was cleaning out a couple of cupboards at home recently! But it’s on display now and it was a very prestigious to win.I played the game because I loved it and to win these awards was a bonus.
What is your favourite Grand Final memory?
1981 which was the first-ever Grand Final I ever played in – I didn’t even play in one as a kid. Parramatta had never won a Grand Final and after we won we began to realise exactly what it meant to everybody. We had to get a police escort back to the Leagues Club because our bus driver couldn’t get through the crowds without one. Jack Gibson addressed the crowd, who were packed in like sardines, and uttered that immortal line: “Ding dong, the witch is dead!” Then the next morning we discovered the fans had got a bit carried away and burned down the stadium, the Cumberland Oval! We had to play at Belmore, Canterbury’s ground, for five years before our ground re-opened as Parramatta Stadium.
How highly do you rate Nathan Hindmarsh who has just broken your appearance record for the Eels?
Records are made to be broken and it couldn’t go to anyone better than Nathan. He’s been a great servant to the club, and you’d have to say he’d be in Parra’s greatest-ever team.
Who was the best British player of your era?
Garry Schofield – he was a great player and a real thorn in the side of anyone he came across. He could score tries from nothing when he was a young centre and then he went on to become a very good stand-off and a very good leader. Ellery Hanley was obviously pretty special but he didn’t always produce it against us at Test level. At Wigan, I thought Henderson Gill and David Stephenson were very good. In 2001 we flew over and played two legends’ games against Great Britain and it was great to catch up with them all again.
There are a few Aussies now coaching in Super League. What do you remember of them as players?
Justin Morgan was at Parramatta and was quite a talented back-rower, a good defender with some good ball skills. But first grade was his limit – he wasn’t going to play Origin. Nathan Brown was outstanding, a great hooker for St George. I didn’t see play Tony Smith play too much to be honest. Terry Matterson was a very good loose forward for Brisbane and an excellent goalkicker. Mick Potter played Origin and deservedly so because he was a very talented fullback, very good with the ball and a very good defender. As for Michael Maguire, I don’t remember him playing but he coached at Melbourne and it’s no surprise to me that he’s taken the wrestling techniques into Super League. I used to think they were ruining the game over here but I’m not surprised to see he’s been successful so far with them over there. And as for Kevin Walters, he was a fantastic player.
How do you view the two-referee system in the NRL?
I’m not a fan to be honest. I didn’t want it originally and people who did are now turning against it. They’re supposed to have speeded up the game but if referees were too slow then they shouldn’t have been referees. They’ve made a lot of mistakes recently and not enough common sense is being applied. As a player you could prepare for one referee because you’d know how he’d officiate, but with two watching them there are a lot of penalties.
You saved one of your last great performances for Parramatta’s game against the touring British Lions in 1992.
It’s amazing what can happen when you come up against the old enemy! We were really struggling back then and we had a lot of young blokes in the team but I told them that it was their big chance to play against a side like Great Britain because, with no disrespect, they weren’t good enough to play for Australia. It was a great night for us and although I wasn’t as good as I had been, I showed I could still play a bit. We were the only club side to beat Great Britain as well which was a big deal for the club at the time.
In your 1993 book you said, “I can’t argue with those who claim that he [Wally Lewis] was the greatest player the game has produced.” Seventeen years on, having witnessed the Johns -Lockyer era, would you now be willing to argue?
I would still go with Wally. It’s hard to compare different eras but the game was a lot tougher when Wally played and he had to come through that. Andrew was certainly an outstanding player but I don’t think he would have stood out as much in the 1980s with Peter Sterling, Steve Mortimer and Mark Murray around. But Wally had a lot of competition at five-eighth and he still stood out.
Does Rugby League have the strength to repel the threat from AFL in Western Sydney?
Yeah I think so, I really do. It’s always been a big sport in the Western Suburbs – it’s a blue-collar sport and the Western Suburbs is a blue-collar area. There’s still a lot of work to be done to remain the number-one sport but we’ve got a good stronghold on the area.
Given you have been successful in coaching in 2006 with Penrith winning the Under-20 Premiership, do you still have ambitions in coaching?
Yes I’m currently coaching the Wentworthville Magpies who are a feeder side to Parramatta. I enjoyed my time at Penrith and we won the competition four weeks after they told me they didn’t need me anymore, which put a little bit of egg on their faces. I coached a few blokes like Michael Jennings who are now going really in the NRL. I worked with Nigel Wright, who I’m sure your readers are familiar with, and saw him a month or so ago when he was over here. We got on well and we had a great time at Penrith. I’d love to work with him again if I can persuade him to come back.
What would you do to get international Rugby League capturing the public’s imagination again, particularly in Australia?
Out here people want to see full Kangaroo tours again and three-Test series during our season when Great Britain tours. I don’t think anything else captures the imagination. The other countries are getting closer to Australia as New Zealand proved in the World Cup and England by pushing New Zealand all the way in their semi-final. But the best-of-three series is always a winner.
You were admired my many fans and players, but who inspired you? Who did you love to watch or play with or against, and which coaches inspired you?
Coaching-wise Jack Gibson was a huge inspiration of course. I was very fortunate to be coached by him at a young age when players are often easily led and influenced, but playing under Jack really benefited me. John Peard was my first coach at Parramatta and he gave me my debut in 1980 at 19 and I’ll always be grateful for that because it was rare back then for a 19-year-oild to play first grade. In terms of players, Mick Cronin was a big inspiration. I played outside him for half of my first season and he helped me gain some confidence. If it wasn’t for Mick I wouldn’t have achieved half of what I did.
What was it like from a players point of view in those early SOO games and how did it feel from a NSW point of view to finally win your first series?
I made my debut in 1982 and those early games were tough – I remember blowing hard after just a couple of sets – but I enjoyed them. We all wanted to play Origin and blokes that played for Australia but not Origin were always disappointed about that. New South Wales didn’t do too well at first, often losing by one game in three but we turned it round in 1985 and I’ll always remember that famous image of Steve Mortimer sinking to the turf in jubilation when we finally clinched the series. It was fantastic to finally win the State of Origin. Origin was great – we used to drive past the infamous Caxton Hotel en route Lang Park when we played up in Queensland and there would be people throwing beer cans at the bus and shouting at us. It was pretty daunting at first, but it was part of the experience and it got us in the mood to go out and play!
Your face is on the State of Origin Shield along with Wally Lewis’s. What do you remember of your battles with him?
I loved them! I remember feeling sorry when watching Wally play for Australia in 1982 at the Sydney Cricket Ground because the New South Wales press were bagging him for being the only Queenslander in the side. But he deserved his spot. When we came up against each other, I really enjoyed it. We were mates and with our faces on the trophy we had to do a lot of promotional work together for Origin. He was a tremendous footballer.
What’s your tip for this year’s series ?
I think the Blues can do it and stop the Maroons going five in a row. It will be difficult but I think they’ll have learned a lot from the last four years that Queensland have won the Shield and there are a few question marks over Darren Lockyer who is getting on a bit. New South Wales finally have some options at five-eighth as well like Braith Anasta, Greg Bird and Terry Campese instead of having to play a back-rower there like in recent years.
Which area would you like to see get the next NRL Spot? And why?
The Central Coast in New South Wales. They’ve got a very big junior area and the people love their Rugby League. Blue Tongue Stadium has been used for trial games and always gets a good crowd. But people get put off by the fact that Northern Eagles were based here but they were a relocated Sydney team and they were an unpopular merger between Manly and North Sydney Bears. Their own team would be very well supported.
There are a number who think in junior rugby we should go by weight groups rather than age groups. Do you agree?
It’s certainly a contentious issue and people tend to look at the little guy who is outsized and I can understand that. But, on the other hand, look at the big guys. A 100kg 13-year-old might have to play with 16-year-olds and that isn’t fair on him because he hasn’t matured. I don’t know what the answer is, but that wouldn’t be good.
Who were the toughest opponents you played against, either in club, Origin or internationals?
Terry Lamb and Wally Lewis – they were the best two stand-offs I came up against. When I played against Terry I prepared as though I was playing against Wally and that’s the best compliment I can pay him. They both made my life difficult on the field but I was comfortable playing against other five-eighths.
Who in the modern game do you see as closest in style to yourself?
Tough question! I’m not sure I can name anyone because the game and the role of stand-off has changed so much. For instance they all kick the ball al lot now but I never used to because I had Sterlo inside and Mick Cronin outside me.
Did you honestly think you could lose a game on the 1982 and 1986 tours?
We didn’t focus on that in 1982 until the last couple of games – probably before the last club game and last Test. The club games were a worry but not the last Test because of the neutral referee and we were confident we wouldn’t lose in France. In 1986, we didn’t talk about it because we didn’t want to pressure ourselves but we knew it was a reality towards the end.
What do you remember of touring in 1982 and did you expect to get picked?
It was a great honour to be picked but of course I didn’t really expect to get in over Wally. It was a little bit awkward to be honest but he came over when he found out and wished me well. I managed to score in the first Test and kept my place for the next.
Would you agree that it’s inevitable that Sydney will embrace soccer and will this damage junior numbers and interest in Rugby League over the next decade or so?
When the soccer World Cup gets closer people get excited – that’s what’s it’s like for me anyway and I’m sure I’m not alone in that – but then it wears off so I don’t think it’s damaging long-term. It might have some sort of impact but I think we’ll still remain the dominant code.
Greg Bird said recently that playing SL was almost like playing a different sport. When you came to the UK, did you notice any major differences?
Greg’s right – they are two very different competitions nowadays. But the differences I noticed weren’t the same as what he’s probably noticed last year. I picked up on two things – firstly training wasn’t as professional in England although you’d probably expect me to say that, but what was more professional was the way the clubs treated their players. In Australia I would carry all of my kit in a big bag to games, but at Wigan it was all done for me. That’s just a small example, but I remember thinking that players were treated better in England.
Do you still get called Bert?
Yes, and to be honest if people call me Brett I sometimes don’t answer because I’m not used to it!
You played a fair amount of centre in your career. Did you enjoy it as much and did you find it differed?
I didn’t mind centre but if it was at club level I sometimes got a bit bored because you were further from the ruck. But at Test level it was so intense, you were always involved.
Would you say that you had a natural talent or would you say that a particular coach took your raw skills and developed you into an international class player and if so which coach?
I’d say a bit of both. When I moved into coaching, Tim Sheens told me I’d been a natural as a player and that I would get frustrated by players who didn’t have the ability I’d had. But however talented a player is, coaches like Jack Gibson improve parts of your game all the time and that’s what happened to me.
Do you think that talent can be coached out of players and if so who do you feel have been the worst offenders?
Definitely! Jack Gibson used to say his greatest fear was over-coaching players and taking away their abilities. For example, some players are great at the chip and chase and things like that but some coaches won’t allow it to happen. We have to look at a players’ skills and use them all.
You played in Grand Finals, a Challenge Cup final, State of Origins and Test football. Which was the best game you played in?
I’d have to say the 1981 Grand Final. Playing for your country is the ultimate in one sense but it’s with guys you’ve sometimes only been with for a week or so. Winning a Grand Final is with guys you’ve been with all year and that makes it special.