‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with the original Crusaders coach, John Dixon, in 2007. His answer to the John Kear question was a bit more colourful but he wouldn’t let me print it! Dixon returned to Australia after the club’s first season in the top flight.
Tell us about your playing career.
It was very inauspicious to be honest. I played in Toowoomba, where I was born, for three years between 1973 and 1975 and that included a game against the touring Great Britain side in 1974. I then moved on to captain/coach Dalby Brothers and then had a spell as a player at Rockhampton Brothers. I also played a lot of Touch, playing for Queensland and Australia.
When did you get into coaching on a permanent basis?
I was a teacher back then and I think that made me want to get into coaching as well because the two professions are obviously linked and teachers probably have the methodology required for coaching. I’d had that spell as captain/coach of Dalby which stood me in good stead. Then after playing Touch, I coached in Toowoomba where we won two Premierships and three President’s Cups. I was then on the coaching panels of Queensland and the South-West where I met Wayne Bennett and he ended up offering me a job at Brisbane Broncos.
Was that a tough decision to make?!
(laughs) It took me about two seconds to decide that I wanted to join the Broncos! It was in 1995 and I went on to enjoy a variety of roles at the clubs. I was involved with junior development, recruitment, and looking after the Under-17s and 19s. I was also coach of the Toowoomba Clydesdales – the Broncos’ feeder club – and I was an assistant to Wayne, although not the assistant coach if you see the difference. Wayne was tough to work for because he had such high standards and expectations but I was very pleased to have spent ten years there. After that time, I felt that I’d served my apprentice and that it was time to move on.
Was your cancer scare around that time?
Yes, it was at the end of 2005 that I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My doctor – a wonderful friend – said he needed to talk to me so I went to see him and he gave me the news. He advised me not to go to Wales but that’s not my way and I had the treatment and came over. I don’t dwell on it because it’s in the past and I was and still am lucky to have the best woman in the world, my wife Helen, with me.
Why did you choose to go to Wales?
The whole concept excited me. I’d had good grounding as a teacher and working at the Broncos and I knew I would be able to put into place at the Celtic Crusaders some of those good practices. It was Chris O’Callaghan who approached me and then stuck with me when I was crook. He had the dream of what could be achieved in Wales after the demise of the Celtic Warriors. He saw the window of opportunity but we were still under no illusions of the task in front of us. There have been plenty of great Welsh Rugby League players although the sport has had a chequered history here but in Leighton Samuel we had a man who wanted to back the club and we’ve managed to build something up and we’ve improved everyday.
How would you assess the club’s progress so far?
We’ve done well haven’t we? We put structures in place which have helped us move forward, we’ve employed good staff and we’ve recruited the right players who have proved to be excellent role models. It wasn’t just a question of getting the best players available but getting those who would train hard and be responsible young men. That then makes them great role models. We didn’t have any players who were well known to the Welsh public at first but I’m proud to say now that guys like Tony Duggan, Jace van Dijk and others are well known to the local people. They sign autographs for the fans and that’s a mark of the progress we’ve made! We’ve attracted companies like Redrow Homes and Brains to sponsor us because we’re a growing brand with a football team which is on the rise. We started playing in front of a couple of hundred people. We’re now playing in front of 1,500 or more with 3,500 or so at the recent Widnes match. S4C have put us in front of the Welsh public and Sky have also done a great job with the National Leagues. People can see that we’re not a fly by night operation.
What have been the on-field highlights?
Last season’s promotion is obviously a highlight especially after the agonising play-off defeat to Swinton in 2006. But maybe we weren’t quite ready for promotion back then. But to win promotion last year was a tremendous thrill and we knew that we had to be in National League One in 2008 if we were to have a realistic chance of Super League in 2009. Another on-field highlight would be our Challenge Cup game at Leeds this year where we competed so well for 80 minutes and also against the other week when we had five or six senior players out and had to bring in some kids. But they did a very good job! We’ve schooled our young players in the right way so when they came in they didn’t do any better or worse than we expected. That’s a Litmus Test for any club and we came through it with a great win.
Your Colts team have done very well this year.
Absolutely! They look like Rugby League players, not rugby union players playing League which is the most pleasing thing. I watch them with great optimism and we’ll continue to attract excellent youngsters to this club because we tap into a national market. We’re not a borough or a city, we’ve got a whole nation of players to tap into. Given a chance, we can make huge strides.
Are you confident of being given that chance in the form of a Super League licence for 2009 and beyond?
No, I’m not confident about that necessarily but what I am confident of is that we have put in a very good application. We’ve got a very strong case but the decision lies with the Rugby Football League and we’ll respect whatever decision they come up with. We’ve got something special here.
What did you make of John Kear’s comments last week that your stadium is pretty poor and that you don’t have the junior infrastructure or the support base to support a Super League club?
If that’s his opinion then that’s his opinion. But I wouldn’t comment on another team’s licence application when my own team has also made an application.
How do you react to the scepticism that has been shown towards your club in the last two and a half years?
We can understand it because the game has tried to make strides down here before and some of the clubs in the north who perhaps feel left out have wonderful histories. But you have to dwell on what cards you have in front of you right now and we’ve been on the front foot since day one.
If you get into Super League would it help you to have another Welsh club in National League Two where players could be nurtured en route to Super League?
I’ve not really thought about that to be honest but yes it certainly would be great for us.
You were recently appointed as the Welsh national coach. What will you bring to that role?
I was bitterly disappointed that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup so when it came up I was only too happy to take it on and do my best to get us into the next World Cup. We’ve had players like Iestyn Harris and Lee Briers who have been fantastic for Wales but we’ll be starting from scratch again. Long term Celtic Crusaders are the vehicle for the rise of the national side.