I first met Garry Schofield OBE in 2007 when I became editor of Rugby League World, who he had written a column for the year before and he continued to do so throughout my editorship. In 2010 I accompanied him on the BARLA Young Lions tour to South Africa, with him as head coach and me as media manager, where I had the misfortune of sharing a room with him for 16 days…
Schoey is one of the finest players to have laced on a boot – see on this website how highly Wally Lewis and Brett Kenny rate him – and he is now the head coach of Barrow Raiders. This interview was conducted for Rugby League World’s ‘Guest Room’ in 2010 before he landed the Barrow job.
HE didn’t pick up a winners’ medal at club level but Garry Schofield scooped numerous awards for his outstanding displays on the rugby field throughout a highly distinguished playing career.
An OBE from the Queen sits proudly at the top of the pile while a joint-record 46 Test caps for Great Britain and several outstanding displays against Australia and New Zealand illustrate what a force he was at the game’s highest level.
Having already underlined his potential with a sensational debut season at Hull when he topped the tryscoring charts with 38, he went on to score several tries as a young Great Britain centre – including two in the 1984 Ashes, four in one game against New Zealand in 1985 and five in the three 1986 Ashes Tests.
But it was in 1990 when he hit his peak as an international. By now a Leeds player, he played stand-off for the first time for his country, and vice-captained an injury-hit side to a remarkable against-the-odds series win in New Zealand, picking up man-of-the-match awards in the first two Tests with a couple of magnificent performances. In the autumn, he found more superb form as Great Britain stunned Australia at Wembley before going within a whisker of winning the Ashes at Old Trafford in that incredible but agonising Test.
Two years later, and with the 1991 Man of Steel in the bag, Schofield came within a whisker of captaining GB to Ashes and World Cup glory. The series against Australia was lost 2-1 Down Under but his finest hour came in Melbourne as the Lions romped to a sensational 33-10 second-Test win with him controlling the game in the number-six jersey. At Wembley in November, the World Cup Final went down to the wire, but a late Kangaroo winner reduced a heartbroken Schofield to tears.
His playing career ended in 1999 after spells at Huddersfield, Doncaster and Bramley. He works tirelessly for the ‘Life For A Kid’ charity and captains the Great Britain All-Stars. He continues to offer the most honest and hard-hitting thoughts on the game.
What are your best and worst experiences on a rugby field?
The best experience for sure is hammering the Aussies at Melbourne in 1992. We were confident we could beat them the score in the first Test didn’t reflect the game – we’d have won if it wasn’t for Andrew Ettingshausen catching Martin Offiah twice. We certainly didn’t expect to be 22-0 up at half-time though! The worst is being part of a Leeds side that conceded ten tries to one player. Martin might have been a great finisher and Gene Miles, inside him, had a great game, but we were diabolical and it was a huge disappointment.
How could the RFL make better use of distinguished former players like yourself when they retire from playing the game?
The experience a lot of us have should be put to use far better than it is. Other sports have a better record of keeping ex-players involved in some capacity and the Aussies always seem to have their best players from the ‘eighties and ‘nineties on the scene.
What needs to be done to promote Rugby League to a wider audience in the UK?
We need to have a much bigger presence on terrestrial television. We used to play internationals in front of a massive audience, but in the Super League era they’ve been played at 6pm and shown on Sky Sports Two! Whoever handed the internationals over to Sky made a huge mistake. If the RFL put as much thought, time and money into improving the game’s exposure as they do in pursuing their ridiculous ideas of expansion, the game would be in a pretty healthy state.
If you were England coach which players would make your starting 17?
Richard Owen; Ryan Hall; Martin Gleeson, Ryan Atkins, Peter Fox; Sam Tomkins, Kyle Eastmond; Garreth Carvell, Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock; Gareth Ellis, James Graham, Sam Burgess. Subs: Michael Shenton, Richie Myler, Adrian Morley, Sean O’Loughlin.
How disappointed were you not to win the Golden Boot because the award was suspended during your finest years as an international player?
I was in line to receive it in 1991 but the sponsors got the hump that it wasn’t going to an Australian! I didn’t know that until a couple of years ago, but when I heard about it I was extremely proud to have been considered for such an award. It would have been based on my performances in 1990 and I look back on my performances in those Tests with a great deal of pride. I was part of the presentation team that handed the Golden Boot to Greg Inglis last year and I saw what it meant to him and the raucous reception his teammates gave him. Being crowned the world’s best player is the highest honour a player can receive.
How did playing in Australia improve your game and would our current crop of internationals benefit from a similar experience?
Our quality young players really need to go out there for a long time. There’s no two ways about it – the NRL is a much better competition and you can’t take your foot off the gas like a player can in England. For me, it exposed me to a very intense competition where there were no easy games. It made me a much better player and Frank Stanton at Balmain was easily the best coach I played under.
You’ve been critical of Celtic Crusaders’ inclusion in Super League. Will you be more favourable towards South Wales Scorpions in Championship One or is Rugby League in Wales a non-starter?
It’s a non-starter at a professional level but I’d support it being played and coached at any level beneath that. An area has to earn the right to have a professional team and Wales haven’t done that at all. The Crusaders have been a joke and another club called South Wales failed in 1996 after just one season. I can’t see what will be different with this new team.
Are you in favour of kicking out all overseas players from the British game and if so, how could this be done?
Yes. I’d put an ban on Aussies coming over here for five years. Australia did that to our players in 1977 because they knew our players were better than there’s – and look what it did for them. There are so many quality players out there between 18 and 20 who aren’t being given an opportunity. For every Shaun Lunt who moves up two divisions and proves that he’s a great player, there’s another five in the Championship divisions who aren’t even noticed by the Super League clubs. After the five-year period, I’d have no more than two overseas players per club.
How do the skill levels in the game nowadays compare to when you were playing the game and what are the reasons for any change?
Skill levels today are very ordinary and today’s coaches are promoting a boring style of Rugby League. The Aussie coaches over here started this unfortunate trend and the British coaches have sadly followed suit. It seems that off-the-cuff Rugby League isn’t allowed anymore. It’s all about error-free rugby, completions and a good kick-and-chase game. We’ve never played in a similar style as the Australians until recently and we need to get back to the British style in order to beat them.
Do you think England reaching the final of the Four Nations is a sign of genuine improvement from the national side and what needs to be done for them to win a major international tournament in future?
Let me tell you this: in 1992 we lost the World Cup Final 10-6 but we lost the 2009 Four Nations Final by 30 points. Where’s the improvement in that? We’re no nearer the Australians than we were in 1982.
Andy Farrell, Shaun Edwards, Mike Ford, Phil Larder and Graham Steadman have all ended up coaching in rugby union. What needs to be done to keep the best coaching talent within our game?
Give them opportunities – simple as that! Shaun wanted the London Broncos job but didn’t get it so he went to union and you couldn’t blame him for doing that. They’ve been successful and deserve to be congratulated for that.
Of the players playing today who do you think is most similar in terms of strengths and weaknesses to yourself as a player?
I’d have to say Sam Tomkins to be honest. He’s got the talent to come into a game when he can see something is on and he’s not frightened to do the unexpected. He likes the kick over the top and he’ll go for an interception. He doesn’t stick to one part of the field like a lot of today’s players.
Would you like to be working within Rugby League and if so in what capacity?
Without a doubt! I’d love to be at one of the top clubs and also in the international set-up. Man-management is just as important as technical coaching at international level. If you get the little things right off the field like keeping everyone happy and getting the environment right, it makes a huge difference. Our players often look like they’ve got the weight of the world on their shoulders and I could have a big input there because I know how an international team should be prepared. I’d also like to work with halfbacks. I’ve certainly got a lot to offer there.
If you were appointed Chief Executive of the RFL, what three things would you do or change to improve the game?
Firstly, I’d put a ban on overseas signings. Secondly, the Challenge Cup Final would be the last game of the season – the pinnacle of the season. Super League should be planned around the Challenge Cup in my opinion. Thirdly, I’d make sure that refereeing standards came up to scratch because they need to be looked at.
Are there any current union players you feel would be a success in Rugby League?
I like Danny Cipriani and think he could make a good Super League player but Brian Noble’s idea last year about union signings being salary-cap exempt was ridiculous. Union signings nearly bankrupted the game pre-Super League.
How do you think Rugby League should support the development of the game in emerging nations such as Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands etc, or is it more important to concentrate on building up areas where it is already strong like England and Australia?
It’s good to see Rugby League being played anywhere but all of the RFL’s man-power has to go into improving the international game at the highest level. I like what’s happening at the moment on the worldwide scene and it’s good to see so many countries playing the game at some level – but the playing standards don’t really matter, as long as they’re playing Rugby League. But I hope we don’t go down the route of dragging a minor nation up to the highest level only for them to embarrass themselves. We don’t need an international version of Celtic Crusaders!
What needs to be done to ensure clubs outside the Super League have a viable future?
They have to keep doing their best and focus on the fact that there is a lot of English talent out there. There certainly shouldn’t be any overseas players in those two divisions.
Who is the best British coach in the game today and should they be coaching England?
I like Brian McDermott to be honest. Richard Agar’s been a bit of a disappointment while Brian Noble and John Kear have already coached the international team and failed. I reckon McDermott would handle the big names in the England squad. Harlequins fell away badly last year but he has very little to work with down there – their squad has been pretty threadbare recently. At least he had them up near the top for half a season; that’s an achievement in itself given how little they appear to be spending on players.
How do you feel when you hear modern-day players complaining about ‘burn out’ and having to play ‘too many’ games?
It’s absolute codswallop! I can’t believe any sportsman can say they’re tired. The rest period and rehab have never been better. The advice they get on diet etc is far better that it ever has been. It’s laughable to be honest. You should enjoy sport and not moan about being tired. They only play about 30 hours a year, even less if you’re a forward.
Will you be voting in the General Election this year and who do you want to win?
I’ve never voted and I never will because I don’t trust any of them.
You played some great rugby in your career. Would you swap the plaudits for a winners’ medal in the Challenge Cup, Championship or Aussie Premiership?
No I wouldn’t. I might not have won a winners’ medal but the satisfaction I get now looking back at my international performances is immense. To have people say that I was one of the best players in the world is an amazing feeling and to captain your country against Australia is simply unbelievable. I’d have absolutely loved to have won the Challenge Cup or the League but Wigan were just too good.
You criticised the last two appointments of Australian-born coaches by England. Now you are advocating the appointment of Wayne Bennett. How did your change of opinion come about ?
I’m not advocating Bennett as a coach. I want him to have the same role he had with the Kiwis in the World Cup. He would change the mental attitude that is currently harming us in the really big games. We have a mental block that he would sort out. If he hadn’t been involved with New Zealand in 2008, they wouldn’t have won the World Cup.
What criteria should clubs use when looking to appoint a new coach?
I’d want to know how they want their team to play and how they’d get the best out of their players. I wouldn’t want to employ a coach who was too regimented and boring with his game plan.
Over the past decade or so England/GB have produced forwards capable of matching the best of the southern hemisphere: Ellis, Burgess, Peacock, Morley and Graham come to mind. We’ve struggled to produce backs who can compete. Why do you think this is?
Again, the flair has been coached out of our backs in Super League. When we get into a decent field position, we look clueless because the players are used to breaking down a weak Super League defence but can’t break down the brick wall put up by the Aussies.
Should Super League clubs make more of an effort to spot talent in the lower leagues rather than signing overseas players?
Of course they should. I’ve already mentioned Shaun Lunt who signed for Huddersfield from Workington. There’s so many great kids like Shaun in the Championship divisions – we see them on the telly every Thursday – and we need to see a lot more in Super League. I hate it when a new batch of NRL players come over because we will invariably hear how long it will take some of them to settle in. I didn’t get the chance to settle in at Balmain – I either performed well or I was dropped. But just wait and see – ten of this year’s new signings will be crap and their coaches will keep them in the team and cite homesickness or the difference in style between the two comps.
Do you have any regrets in Rugby League?
Just one – not leaving Leeds under Doug Laughton and going to Wigan. I was on £20,000 a year at Leeds and Maurice [Lindsay] offered me a three-year deal at £100,000 a year. Wigan offered Ellery Hanley and £25,000 for me but in the end they signed Ellery for £250,000. That’s loyalty for you and I wasn’t repaid for it by Laughton given how he treated me.
Why do you think some people regard your views as ‘controversial’?
I don’t think I’m controversial; I’m just honest. Rugby League has been fantastic to me; it’s taken me all around the world and I’ve made amazing lifelong friends. But I think I’ve become unpopular with some people in the Super League era when the mantra has been to say how wonderful everything is and to support the expansion teams despite how badly they’re doing. If we all believed Sky, you’d think we were miles better than the Aussies. Super League’s good but anyone who thinks that there aren’t things that can be approved. I remember in 2002, everyone went mad when I said the Aussies would beat us by 40 points in that ridiculous one-off Test in Sydney. Everyone thought I was crazy and that we’d go over there and play really well. When we lost 64-10, everyone got wise after the event and claimed it was obvious we’d lose! I think I get proved right over a lot but some people want to live in cloud cuckoo land and be oblivious to the truth.
Do you remember struggling with Leeds twice up at Workington in 1994?
Absolutely! Town had a really good team and they had us on the ropes twice at Derwent Park in that season. The RFL should hang their heads in shame that they’ve neglected Cumbria in recent years. The talent up there is frightening but most of it has been lost to the game. A few Super League clubs have started looking up there again and they’ll unearth some great players.
Are you disappointed you always got so much flak over leaving Hull?
Yes. It wasn’t mine and Lee Crooks’s fault that Hull were £750,000 in debt. The reaction was disappointing and still, 22 years later, some people still have a bit of a pop but at least Paul Cooke has taken the pressure off me a bit!
What was your opinion on Ellery Hanley’s refusal to talk to the media when he played?
He should never have been allowed to get away with it, especially when he was the Great Britain captain. No other international captain in any sport would have done that, but Maurice was the man in charge and he let him carry on like that. Favouritism for a Wigan legend perhaps.
Who were you heroes?
The first game I went to was when Leeds played Widnes and won 33-3 but I didn’t really have any heroes, although I was very much a Loiner and loved watching John Holmes, Les Dyl, David Ward and Atkinson. When I signed professional, it was David Topliss who took me under his wing and was like a second father to me.