My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Ewan Dowes in 2008. After the answer to the third-last question, Dowes promptly got injured in his next game and missed the next five games…
Did you know much about Rugby League before you moved to Leeds?
Not really. I’m from Carlisle but I wasn’t really aware of Rugby League, despite the professional team there. I went to Sedbergh School, one of the top union schools in the country. Guys like Will Carling, Will Greenwood and James Simpson-Daniel went there. I didn’t really get into League until I went down to Leeds to play union for the Tykes.
What did Sedbergh think of you becoming a Rugby League player?
Well, I was a bit worried about that at first! But when I got to the Challenge Cup final in 2005 the headmaster and my old housemaster wrote to me wishing me luck. They’ve told me that if I ever get a full cap, they’ll put my shirt up in the pavilion which has the shirts of all the blokes who have full union caps. They’ve been great in supporting me since I left.
How quickly did you start playing League after moving to Leeds?
The first summer that I was there. I was in the England Under-19s rugby union squad and Johnny Caddick – Paul’s son – persuaded me to train with the Under-21′s League side. I loved it and thought I was better suited to it. I was a prop in union but didn’t really enjoy it. I didn’t switch straightaway but it was still an easy decision to make. I thought League was great and really took for it. I started playing for the Academy in a really good side, which probably made it easier to adapt. There was Danny McGuire, Chev Walker, Rob Burrow, Danny Ward and Gaz Carvell – real class.
Did you pick up the rules quickly?
Reasonably quickly although I was sin-binned in my first game for accidental offside when I’d just come on. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but that was the only problem that I can remember.
Did you rub shoulders with the first teamers?
Not at first but I went to Jacksonville with them in 2001 for a pre-season camp. They took the whole first-team squad plus two Academy players – me and Rob Burrow. Huddersfield and Halifax were there too, for us to play. I played against Halifax at Jacksonville Jaguars’ ground.
You made your Super League debut the same year.
Loads of us did. Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire, Jason Netherton and Jon Liddell. My first game was at Wigan when we had a lot of injuries and we lost 42-6. I played five games that year which was great experience for the future.
You played ten Super League games for Leeds. Was there a time when you felt you were close to to making the grade there on a permanent basis?
Yes, in the season when I went on loan to Hull. I was in the Leeds side at the start of the year when there weren’t too many injuries but Leeds told me they were letting me go to Hull and I thought, ‘fair enough’. Daryl Powell was the coach and I don’t think I was the type of prop that Daryl was looking for at the time. He seemed to go for bigger blokes like Wayne McDonald and Chris Feather. But that’s the way it goes. Coaches have a favourite type of player.
How did you settle in at Hull?
Fine. I went straight into the 17, although I was coming off the bench a lot that year but I still played all 18 games that I could have played. We had a lot of injuries that year and missed out on the play-offs but we still picked up some good wins, including a big win over Saints which was obviously satisfying. That run of Super League games was the break through for me because I was in a bit of a rut at Leeds, not being given the chance to develop. It was the best thing I could have done.
You started most games in 2004 and Hull enjoyed a much-improved season.
Yes we did. We finished third and were only beaten in the Challenge Cup in a great game at Knowsley Road. The league position was great for the club but we couldn’t take that form into the play-offs and ended up losing at home to sixth-placed Wakefield which was a big disappointment. I also played three games for England in the European Nations Championship that year. One was in Moscow where we beat Russia 98-4, then one in France, where we won 42-4 and then the final was against Ireland at Warrington and we won 36-12. I started all three games which was a great honour and a great experience for me. I played three more games for England two years later, in 2006, against France, Tonga and Samoa, with us winning all three.
Would you say 2005 was your best year?
Definitely. I played every game and was very happy with my form that year, winning three player of the year awards at the club from the players, fans and coach. And, of course, we won the Challenge Cup. We beat Saints in the semi-final, which was a fantastic result. We’d done well against them in previous years, particularly at home. We knew we could grind them down and beat them. I can remember that game as if it was yesterday because we were so focused and we ended up smashing them.
How instrumental was the coaching of John Kear in winning that Challenge Cup?
He focused on it hugely, maybe even putting the league on the back burner. He had people coming in, giving us talks and helping us focus. The month building up to it was one of the best I’ve experienced in the game and John did so well getting us up for it.
You lost Shaun Briscoe to illness the night before the game.
Losing Shaun was a big blow. You wouldn’t wish that on anyone. We probably thought we had to go out there and do it for him in the end and it might have spurred us on even more. As for the game itself, we suffered that ten-minute spell in the second half when Leeds scored two tries but we kept believing that we could do it, even in the last seconds when we ended up winning it. When Cookey scored that try, the feeling was unbelievable.
You say that Hull focused on the Challenge Cup, putting the league on the back burner. Will more teams do that now there is no relegation?
Yes, I think that will be the case. The Challenge Cup is a big money spinner for the clubs and if clubs really go for Challenge Cup success then it could improve the competition no end.
A couple of months after that final, you lost 71-0 in a play-off game at Odsal. Why the dramatic slump in fortunes?
We lost a bit of form after the Challenge Cup and we lost the last league game to Warrington, who had Andrew Johns in their side. But then we went over to their place a week later in the first play-off game and smashed them. We were buzzing again, thinking we could do things in the play-offs so I don’t really know why we played so badly at Bradford. Stephen Kearney got sent off – in his last ever game – after about six minutes which didn’t help and you could see everyone drop. It was a real shame, just one of those things.
How do you think Kearney will fare as the New Zealand coach?
I think he’ll be outstanding. I’ve always said that I’d love to be coached by him. He’s a tough bloke and he has an aura about him. People listen to him and he had a big influence on what we did in that 2005 season. He’s a leader and he’ll do well as Kiwi coach.
How did the 2006 Grand Final compare to the 2005 Cup Final?
It was totally different to be fair. We only had a week to prepare for it, whereas with the Challenge Cup there’s a month between the semi-final and the final, so it felt a bit rushed. It’s still a great build-up – and I remember looking around Old Trafford for the first time – but different to the Cup Final.
What do you remember of the game?
The noise was unbelievable, completely deafening and the game just flew by. I can remember much more from the Challenge Cup final rather than the Grand Final. The try just before half-time put us on the back foot and we never really recovered.
Is there a reason you’re rarely injured?
I’ve only missed five games since I’ve been at Hull. There’s no reason, it’s just luck I think, touch wood. I look after myself, but so do all players.
What are your aims for 2008?
We want to get back to competing in finals and once we get key personnel back, it’ll give us the lift we need. As for me, I like to set short-term and long-term goals and I want to play well enough week by week to get into the World Cup squad. England have a lot of excellent props to choose from but that makes me want to work even harder to improve my game and give me that edge.
Given your union background, have you had offers to switch back?
I’ve never looked at it as an option and I’ve had no offers other than Phil Davies at Leeds trying to get me to switch back. I’m happy where I’m at and I wouldn’t be interested.