This interview with Lee Briers formed part of the ‘My Life In Rugby League’ series in League Express in 2007.
When did you discover this game?
When I was four and my friends were eight or nine. I didn’t play but I’d go down and watch them, make a nuisance of myself! I started when I was six and played for my local amateur team, St Helens Crusaders, all the way through. Then a Saints scout saw me play for St Helens Town against Wigan Town at Knowsley Road and said he wanted contract talks. I was 15 and signed an amateur contract. I played Academy after that and played against Wigan at Old Trafford in the Academy Challenge Cup final.
You got your first team break after Bobbie Goulding was suspended early in the 1997 season. Can you remember how you felt before your first game?
It probably wasn’t as nerve-wracking as some people’s debuts. I came into a side with blokes like Tommy Martyn, Paul Newlove, Chris Joynt, Apollo Perelini and Steve Prescott so it wasn’t too hard to fit in. They all looked after me but I knew my chances would be limited when Bobbie was back. He was one of my heroes and they weren’t going to leave him out for an 18-year-old kid. I knew I’d be his understudy and I was happy with that. I had no intentions of leaving until things got difficult further down the track.
So what made you leave?
It was when we were getting fitted with our suits for Wembley and they weren’t sure if I’d be going down with the squad after I’d played in six games including the Cup semi-final. Chris Joynt stood up in a meeting and said it was a disgrace that I might not be going with the squad. From then, I just felt it was going to be even harder to get into the team judging by what was coming from the directors. Then Warrington came in for me. I met Daryl Van de Velde and Paul Cullen in a park in St Helens to talk about the move and the rest is history.
How did you settle in at your new club?
Brilliantly although I started off with an away game at Saints where we lost 60-16 which was a bit of a nightmare. I remember signing on a Friday and planning to go out celebrating as I’d come into a bit of money but that soon got washed away as Daryl Van de Velde had me training with the team as soon as I put pen to paper. Ocker, our kit-man, gave me a pair of old boots that he probably had as a player which was a bit of a shock to the system!
After a couple of tough years, how exciting was it to play with legendary figures like Allan Langer, Tawera Nikau, Andrew Gee in 2000 and 2001?
Yes, it was brilliant and I have to thank Daryl for giving me the chance to play with them. Playing with Alfie was a real learning curve. Andrew Gee was a top class bloke, a leader and exactly what you need in a pack. Tawera was awesome and did a lot for the club.
What personal highlights can you recall from those days?
The Challenge Cup semi-final against Bradford when I scored a hat-trick was probably my best personal performance. It was great to play against the Paul brothers in such a big game. If it hadn’t been for Stuart Cummings not going to the video ref for a try to Tawera, it might have been different. Then there was that Welsh semi-final against Australia in the 2000 World Cup. Did we believe we could win? Probably not but we knew we could give them a fright and it was one of the proudest days of my career. The togetherness and spirit in the team was fantastic. It was a special day despite the eventual defeat.
Yes, it was such a stark contrast to England’s 49-6 semi-final defeat to New Zealand the day before. The Welsh certainly seemed to have some qualities that England and Great Britain sides have sometimes sorely lacked.
Definitely. I’ve just read Iestyn Harris’s book and he likened the Welsh 1995 squad to a club side. I certainly thought that when I came into the set-up. We don’t have many players to choose from so there’s continuity there. England have so many to choose from that they sometimes struggle for the continuity and camaraderie which is massive in sport. It’s there straight away with Wales. Against England in ’01 we only had 16 players but took them all the way and almost beat them.
You then made your debut in 2001 against France but, given that you were overlooked for the subsequent Ashes series, do you look back on that period with pride or disappointment?
It was massively disappointing. So close yet so far. I thought I did well against France but I didn’t get a look in against Australia. They played guys like Kevin Sinfield and Mike Forshaw in those key positions. You might get away with it at club level but you can’t expect players to play out of position in internationals. Before the French game I was on the verge of signing for a Welsh rugby union club but I turned it down. Looking back, I definitely made the right decision. Ten years at Warrington proves that.
Do you still harbour hopes you’ll play for Great Britain again?
Yes, of course. I thought I had a chance last year playing in that game at Newcastle but I just missed out again. If I keep playing well for Warrington – which I’ve always said is my main goal; if I said playing for GB was my main goal it would be insulting to Warrington – and don’t get picked again then that’s me done and dusted. There’s a new coach coming in so it’s a clean slate for everyone.
Is the “Briers for Britain” campaign a bit embarrassing?
Well, it’s nice to have so many people backing me and so many people can’t be wrong. I went along with it but it still didn’t get me where I needed to be. Only hard work will do that and I’m not going to shy away from that.
You’ve had four coaches at Warrington. How do you rate them?
Darryl brought me to the club and I thank him very much for that. He had some good ideas but his man-management was a bit poor. Steve Anderson came in after that and he’s possibly the worst coach I’ve ever come across. His ideas, for a man so supposedly experienced in Australia, weren’t the best. In our first meeting he told me he was going to pay me to stay at home! He was a strange bloke, a weird kind of a guy who tried to stamp his authority. I didn’t want to be at Warrington in the same surroundings as that coach. He played me at full-back and dropped me for a player who had been in the National Leagues a year earlier. I had no faith in him. 2000 and 2001 were good years for me but I tend not to think about 2002. David Plange then took over and he took a lot of unfair criticism because he took over a team put together by Steve Anderson, which was lacking confidence. He was a very astute coach and it was unfair that he got sacked but Cull came in and it was the dawn of a new era. He’s the best coach of the four by a country mile. He’s shown a lot of confidence in me, he’s very direct, he lets the players learn and his man-management is really good. We get along very well and we have the same ideas. The future’s bright under Cull.
Recent times at Warrington must have been fantastic for you. What stands out the most?
Well firstly, the move to the new ground has been great but I missed out on the last games at Wilderspool as I’d broken my scaphoid. I was envious of the team playing in that last game but I’ll always remember it because the pressure on the guys was immense and there were tears in the dressing-room beforehand. There was no way they were going to lose. You’re a bit wary moving to a new home I suppose but fortunately the fans here have come out in their droves. They’re the best fans about, especially when you think that we’ve not won anything for so long. I’ll never forget the first game against Wakefield and also Andrew Johns’ first game against Leeds. When Joey came over it was unbelievable. One man took the town by storm and in training you should have seen what he could do. He’s a ridiculous talent. Then, Leeds in the play-offs last year was special. Everyone was totally calm all day and it showed in our performance which was the best I’ve ever been involved in at Warrington by a country mile.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
My mum and dad and then Paul Cullen. We didn’t come from a rich estate but my parents got me whatever I needed and got me to training sessions and Paul has shown so much faith and confidence in me.
Who is the best player you’ve played with?
For a period of time, Allan Langer but for those three games then it’s got to be Andrew Johns. If he decides to come next year it’ll be great and I believe he’s making a decision quite soon.