Ben Westwood – ‘My Life in Rugby League’, filed for League Express in 2008. Westwood has since gone on to win a couple of Challenge Cups and has become a mainstay in the England team.
Google informs me that Ben Westwood is an internationally renowned photographer of soft erotic pornography. Can I assume that’s a different Ben Westwood?
[laughs] Yeah, that’s definitely not me mate.
How did you get into Rugby League?
It happened at school. I was a lot bigger than anyone else when I was ten and no-one dared to tackle me so I found it quite easy. The school coach was the coach of Normanton Knights so he took me down there. My dad was also involved and pushed me pretty hard. When I was 14 or 15 I started getting pretty good – I was a stand-off who got the ball all the time so I thrived on that. I was kicking goals too and loving it.
When did the professional clubs start to show an interest?
A few people watched me at Under-16s level and a bit later I offered to play for Wakefield’s Academy for free. Huddersfield and Hunslet came in for me but I told them I was happy at Wakefield.
When did you start earning money and how much?
I signed a contract on my 17th birthday and worked with my dad on a building site alongside the rugby but we fell out! I signed full-time when I was 18 and picked up just over £300 a month. Some months I didn’t even get paid and I was living with my girlfriend which wasn’t easy but she supported me. My first Super League contract was worth £12,000 a year. In the Academy I played with Gareth Ellis, Tommy Haughey, Paul Handforth and Danny Brough. We had a good team.
What was Brough like back then?
He was everywhere, kicking goals and everything even as an apprentice but he was a little bleeder, always being cheeky to the senior players. He’s done well hasn’t he?
Do you remember your Super League debut?
Yes, it was up at Gateshead and we got hammered 66-6 in the second to last game of the 1999 season. I came on as a sub with us about 50 points down and threw a pass which Gateshead intercepted and went the length of the pitch to score. Behind the sticks, Tony Kemp turned to me and said, “Bloody hell mate. You’ve cost us the game!” He was a good lad, Tony. I was due to pay the week after against Wigan but I fell through a shed roof in an accident at home and Gareth Ellis took my place to make his debut.
Could you tell how good Gareth would become?
To be quite honest, I didn’t think he was anything special but he trained so hard and John Harbin, our coach, always said he’d play for Great Britain. He progressed so much in no time and he’s immense now isn’t he? He’s a good bloke and I wish him well in Australia next year.
How good a coach was Harbin?
Really good. John believed in the younger players and he wasn’t afraid to play us. I owe him a lot. He coached the kids at the club before he got the head coach’s job and he’d tell us that he’d coach the first team one day. He taught me how hard I needed to work in order to succeed. If you’re reading this John, then thanks for what you did for me.
How did the rest of your Wakefield career go?
We always seemed to beat Saints at home for some reason and I remember coming up against Kevin Iro in the centres. Derby games with Cas were always good to play in too. We almost got relegated in 2001 but beat Salford on the last day to stay up. In 2002 we were in another relegation battle and I turned up one morning, mid-season, to be told I was going to Warrington who also came into Nathan Wood. I was disappointed with Wakefield because I didn’t know anything about it and they handled it poorly.
Nathan appeared to be the dressing-room joker wherever he played. Is that a fair assessment?
Definitely. I could tell you loads of Nathan Wood stories. I remember one game which I think was against Wigan in the play-offs, when the referee came into the changing rooms, as usual, to check our boots. Nathan had a plastic gun and a plastic knife stuck down the back of his socks so when put his feet up that’s all you could see. We’re all psyched up to go out and he’s playing jokes like that. He’d also sneak into our houses in the middle of the night!
How well did you settle in at first?
Pretty well. Nathan was my best mate at Wakefield so that made things easier and I got on well with the lads so well that I decided to move over. Paul Cullen came in that year, taking over from David Plange, and I remember being sent off in his first game against Widnes. We did well to stay up that year and Paul turned things around after that. He brought players in who were hard working like Mike Wainwright back from Salford and Brent Grose. We worked hard and got into the top six with Graham Appo in awesome form.
What was Andrew Johns like at the club in his three-match spell in Super League in 2005?
That was a great experience. He just wanted us to learn off him and that’s what we wanted too. He was a smashing bloke too and it was great to train with him. I was unlucky that I missed that first game against Leeds with an ankle injury. We had some good times with him, a few nights out and it was great.
Warrington are currently being criticised for making big signings but not challenging for trophies. How do you see it?
It’s frustrating. We signed Adrian Morley and Vinnie Anderson last year but they were injured half the time so this year with the new signings, it’s like we’ve signed six new players although it doesn’t seem to be working at the minute. A couple are low on confidence and I don’t think people realise how hard it is to move to a new country to play Rugby League. We’ll come good near the end of the season hopefully.
Can you make Old Trafford?
We’re not far off second and if we beat Castleford it could change our season for the better. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Give that you cleaned up at the Warrington player of the year awards in 2007 and have carried that form into this season, is playing for England in the World Cup an ambition?
Of course. Ask any player that and they will tell you it is. But I’ll just concentrate on playing well for Warrington and hope Tony Smith is watching. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll just get on with life at Warrington and winning a trophy.
Certain sections of the media have criticised your discipline pointing out you give away a lot of penalties. Is that fair?
I don’t think so. I can remember reading something like that after round two of Super League this year when we lost to Saints. Refs were blowing up for anything back then and a few were against me. But I play hard and strong and I’m not going to change my game for anybody. I’m still going to run and tackle as hard as I can. If refs don’t like it then tough.
Adrian Morley has suffered similar criticism. Has he been a big influence on your career at Warrington?
Oh yes. I never really knew him before and was nervous when I met him. I don’t know what it is about him. He’s such a nice guy off the field that I think he has to let it out on the field! He’s a great bloke and a captain that leads by example.
Lee Briers still appears to be your main player.
Everyone knows how good Lee is. He’s got tremendous ball skills and kicking skills. People have questioned his defence but he’s not there to tackle. He’s very good at hiding! Is Sean Long a better tackler? He still played for Great Britain. Lee was always good enough for Great Britain.