After the game’s inaugural Magic Weekend in 2007, Jon Wilkin spoke to League Express about his time in rugby league…
What did you make of Millenium Magic?
It was a good idea for the spectators, for promoting the game in south Wales and for giving players the chance to play in a top stadium. It’s a good concept and I said beforehand that it would be interesting to see how well it was ran and how well it was attended. A few things will need ironing out but, to be honest, the players enjoyed it more than we thought we would. We anticipated it would be a bit of a nightmare but the reality was that it was an enjoyable weekend for everyone although the RFL need to improve the attendances and it should have been marketed better towards the Welsh people.
The Welsh are used to their national stadium being full. Do you think the local people who supported the event may have been put off by the turnout?
Exactly. If the RFL are going to do something like that, they have to ensure it’s well attended. Surely the reason for doing something like that is to advertise Rugby League in a good light. To do that, you need a good stadium, good games but also a full stadium which was one thing that was missing. If they can get that then it’s a fantastic idea and a great weekend out for the Rugby League public.
Were St Helens against the concept?
I’m not sure but I think quite a few clubs may have opposed it. Rugby League clubs are businesses and it wasn’t a profitable weekend for a number of clubs.
It was a good weekend for the Saints though.
Yes, it’s always pleasing to beat Wigan. We get a few more pats on the back for beating them than we do for beating other sides. We played OK in the game and are trying to find the consistency we need to get a good run together for the back end of the season. We did some things very well against Wigan but some things weren’t so good. We’re constantly trying to improve.
Did you see much of the Hull derby, with your old team coming out on top?
Well, we tried. It took us about 20 minutes to convince the stewards to let us out of the changing rooms and into the ground! We were huddled around a twelve inch telly watching the game. The players weren’t allocated many seats to watch the other games so that was a bit disappointing but it was such a good result for Hull KR especially with what’s gone on with Paul Cooke. A lot of things could have distracted both teams but, at the end of the day, I thought Hull KR dealt with the distractions better and came up with a great win. Paul Cooke will improve them and they need to get some wins together now for their confidence.
So if you weren’t happy with how the RFL marketed Millenium Magic, are you optimistic they’ll do a good job with Great Britain v France?
It’s disappointing how the game’s been constructed. The international game should be the pinnacle for a player so at the time, you’re only really interested in getting the jersey on. I’m sure the RFL are working hard but I think that things should be organised earlier to give them a chance to market them properly. The World Cup format should have been sorted out earlier as well.
Will you be aiming for an English jersey or do you qualify for another nation?
I don’t think so, I think I’m English all the way! It’d be a massive honour to play for England in the World Cup but that’s for further down the line. You’ve got to ensure that you keep fit and keep playing well in the meantime. There are some good young players coming through but I’d love to play.
What were the highlights of your Hull KR career?
I played in a good Academy side that won the first division Grand Final and I’ve got some great memories from playing in that team. We had a great team spirit and that encouraged me to pursue the game. I played with some great players like Jamie Bovill, Mark Blanchard and Dean Andrews who were probably more talented than me but I was the one who was lucky enough to get the break. I was the youngest player to ever play for Hull KR and I was so proud of that. The club was a great stepping stone for me and it was a tough environment to learn my trade, probably tougher than coming through the Super League Academy system. It was pretty old school and it taught me a lot and helped me grow up.
There are soccer managers like Rafa Benitez who believe, for the good of their juniors, that their reserve teams should be in the lower leagues. Would you like to see a Saints reserve side in National League Two?
Yes, definitely. What it would do, from my experience of playing in the lower divisions, is expose the young players to a more physical game which can only help them. I was a scrawny 16-year-old getting knocked about and I benefited from that in the long run. There are a lot of old pros in the lower divisions and they’d make sure the kids had a good grounding. If not a Saints side in the lower leagues, then a club affiliated to the Super League club so we could get a feeder system going. But it would be difficult because National League clubs have proud histories and have Super League ambitions for the future. They wouldn’t want to just be a feeder club but it would be healthy for all parties to have young players playing in a more competitive league. There’s a big difference between that and Academy football.
There are some outstanding players in the National Leagues – in June’s Rugby League World we’ll be picking the best 50 – but not too many end up in Super League. Are the clubs’ scouting systems at fault?
Well not at St Helens because they picked myself and Ade Gardner up and they’re constantly scouring those leagues to pick up players but there are a lot of good young players there as you say. However, you never know how they’ll get on in a full-time environment but there are quite a few coming through now. One thing that’s very important though is the quality of coaching in the National Leagues because it can be very hard for a player to lose bad habits in the future. You need good coaching at a young age because there are plenty of exciting young players about but the coaching they receive determines whether they become good players or world class players. Rugby League could maybe invest more into coaching right down the levels. That’s the change I’d make with regards to the game outside Super League.
What else would you change about Rugby League if you could?
One of Rugby League’s strengths is that the core things stay the same like the speed, the intensity, the physical contact and the sportsmanship but lately there’s been too much of a fascination with adjusting the rules. A lot of the rules aren’t that important and it just frustrates coaches and players. So I’d like to see us stop tampering with the rules. Let’s get a fixed set of rules and stick with them. A lot of these changes don’t need to be made to make the game more popular. It’s OK as it is. It’s the marketing of the game that isn’t good enough.
Sean Long told me recently that you’re after a media career when you finish playing and your BBC website column is always a fascinating read. Is that the direction you want to head in?
Not necessarily. I’m interested in the media but I’ve got no long term plans. I enjoy doing a bit of writing and talking about the game but that’s about it. I’ve got a lot of interests outside the game so I am looking to the future in that sense and it’s good to keep your options open. I enjoy rugby but it’s not my life.
Are Rugby League players advised well on how to plan for the future?
You can give as much advice to a player as you want but it’s the players who take the advice that benefit. Most people understand that Rugby League players aren’t going to earn enough money in their careers so they don’t have to work again. We have above average earnings for ten years and for a lot of players, it’s a shock when it comes to an end. There’s a mortgage to pay and other things to consider and they want to maintain a lifestyle they’ve got used to. That lifestyle is more than enough of a reason to play the game and in years to come, all I’m looking for is to have fond memories of the game and the camaraderie as well as some achievements that I can be proud of.
What fond memories do you have so far?
There are a few. The biggest achievements have been winning my first Challenge Cup at St Helens. It was my first genuinely big game and it was an amazing feeling that I’ll always remember and something I never thought I’d do. Then there’s my first Great Britain cap and the realisation that I’d been picked to play for my country was so bizarre and even now it’s strange to think that I’ve played at that level. I’m pleased for my parents that they’ve seen that because of the support they’ve given me and that’s the biggest thing in any young person’s career. They supported me to the end and they gave me everything I needed.