I’ve interviewed Adrian several times. Not only is he one of the best players to have laced on a boot in the modern era, he’s as friendly and approachable as they come; a real credit to the sport. Here is a merger of three articles from 2005 for Thirteen, 2007 for League Express and 2008 for Rugby League World.
You’ve come a long way since those early days at Leeds haven’t you?
Yes, I signed for Leeds on my 17th birthday, starting in the Academy. I then played six or seven ‘A’ Team games before playing for the first team, all in the same year. I made my debut as a substitute and I was proud to share the pitch for a few minutes with my hero Ellery Hanley before he went off injured. Besides Wigan, Leeds were the most star-studded side in the competition so I was nervous coming into the side and I had my doubts but Doug Laughton had a good youth policy and if you were good enough, in you went.
But by 1996 you probably had too many kids in the side as things began to fall apart at Headingley.
Yes, the club had big problems after all the money that had been spent in trying to catch Wigan and we were in jeopardy in that first Super League season. We struggled in having a very young side and we only just avoided relegation although a disappointing year domestically still had some good moments for me. I played for England mid-season and was then picked for the Lions tour to New Zealand. That was a fantastic experience and one that will always live with me. Initially, I was happy just to be there alongside guys like Denis Betts and Andy Farrell and it was a dream come true but it turned out that I was to play in the Test side. My debut was pretty memorable. We were beating New Zealand late on in the First Test and I came on and was sin-binned pretty much immediately and John Timu scored two tries to win the game for the Kiwis. What was one of the best days of my life turned into one of the worst. I was dropped for the Second Test but then played in the next and I was so grateful for those opportunities.
A year later you played against the Australian Super League side and played particularly well in the Second Test win at Old Trafford.
Again, I was just happy to be there. I’d had a happier year in Super League with Leeds in 1997. We lost the series but that win at Old Trafford was something special for us all. The series was the first time I’d played the Aussies and we all knew that they were the benchmark in Rugby League.
Do you have a collection of old games on video that you’ve played in that you occasionally dust down and watch?
No but my mother’s got a massive collection of old games. I think she’s got nearly every televised game that I’ve played in somewhere!
Leeds’s fortunes took a sharp upturn when Graham Murray arrived to coach the team. How big an inspiration was he to you?
I’d never been coached by a guy of his experience before and he was a relevation to myself and the whole side. In his first year there, he changed a lot and we got to the Grand Final and although we felt we were the best side that year, we fell at the final hurdle. To be honest, Graham made such an impression and is still missed to this day at Leeds. He had an aura about him as well as being a great coach and he proved very hard to replace. We struggled after he went and he’s gone on to enjoy an excellent coaching career in Australia.
When did you start to think about a playing career in Australia?
In 1999 I toured with the Lions again, this time for the Tri-Nations. We got hammered in Brisbane but I did quite well and, in the players’ bar after the game, a few clubs were there and expressed some interest in signing me but I didn’t think too much of it. I was probably too young then but I thought that further down the track it was a possibility. Graham then got the Roosters job and that’s when things started. I signed for them halfway through 2000 to start over there in 2001.
Which players from that Leeds team could have also made it in the NRL?
Iestyn Harris is the obvious choice – he’d have made it easily. Richard Blackmore had already played in it and the Aussies too. From the British lot, Terry Newton would have gone well and another at the time was Leroy Rivett. I know he went downhill after winning the Lance Todd trophy but he was a great player on his day. The fast, pacy grounds would have suited him.
The last thing you did before you left was to vice-captain England in the World Cup.
When I got the chance to play in a World Cup in 2000, it was so disappointing. England didn’t do as well as we’d have liked and the semi-final against New Zealand was a disaster. As well as that, I had a sternum injury which meant I only played in two games. The tournament was a disaster. I had a choice of three nations which is fairly unique I suppose. Barrie Mac, Gary Connolly and Terry O’Connor were trying to persuade me to play for Ireland and at the time I was probably thinking of the craic and the fun more than the rugby side of things. I didn’t really want to play for Wales but the only thing making me think about them was the chance to play alongside my brother, Chris. I don’t regret turning them down though apart from that. It was farcical in the end! All the guys were taking the mickey but, deep down, I was England through and through.
In England’s opening game you were up against future Roosters teammates Brad Fittler and Bryan Fletcher.
I had an injury and played with a pain-killing jab. I did 60 minutes and caught Bryan with an unfortunate one so I didn’t get off on the right foot with my new teammates! But the competition was a real low point of my whole career. Every day was miserable – it was the worst autumn’s weather on record. We trained in the rain every day and there were no decent places to train because of the conditions. I’d never played in a World Cup and to be the vice-captain was great although I only played twice because of a sternum injury. I played at Twickenham against Australia and in the quarter-final against Ireland and that was my World Cup. It was frustrating because injuries kept me out of a few internationals around that time and it’s hard to take although I’ve been fit for the last few international competitions and I’ve managed to add to my caps.
You struggled at first in the NRL. How long did it take you to totally settle in?
It was probably over a year. In 2001, there was a lack of form, a suspension and injuries to deal with and then Graham got the sack. He was the guy who got me there and I was worried about my future. But Ricky Stuart came in and assured me that I had a future at the club if I stayed. Thankfully I stayed and things got better.
How did your Grand Final triumph in 2002 compare to the 1999 Challenge Cup success at Leeds?
There was a bigger crowd in the Sydney final but there was way more noise at Wembley. The fans here know how to create an atmosphere. But, over there, I had no idea how big Rugby League is until that Grand Final week. That was an eye-opener and another major difference. The newspaper coverage was huge and the whole build-up was a bit overwhelming to be honest. It would be easy to get caught up in all the hype and the hullaballoo but Ricky Stuart, even though he was a young coach, made sure that didn’t happen. He kept our feet on the ground and we got the win that night.
What about the huge hit on Richard Villasanti after he took Brad Fittler out?
Everyone brings that up! That was just one of those things. He took Fittler out and it wasn’t a case of me smashing him because any of the forwards would have done so as we were all that psyched up. And thankfully he ran at me!
You played in two more Grand Finals but lost. They must be heartbreaking games to lose.
Grand Finals are all about the winning side and it’s not a place for losers. We probably had a better side when we lost but these things happen. We weren’t outplayed when we lost but you can’t win them all. The big turning point in 2003 was the Scott Sattler cover tackle on Todd Byrne that saved a try. If we’d have scored then, we’d have gone on to win but they took a lot of confidence from that moment and went on to win.
Another low of your career came with the infamous 12th-second red card against Australia. Is that still the biggest disappointment of your career?
Yes definitely. We really believed that we had a genuine chance of toppling the Aussies and because I’d had a reasonably good year in Australia, I thought that it was my duty to get out there and show the rest of the team that they were beatable. But I was too aggressive and, looking at the video, I was seven or eight metres ahead of the other players. If I’d hit him cleanly, he’d have ended up in the stands but he stepped me and we all know what happened. At the time it was hugely disappointing but I’m over it now. We lost each of those Tests by such a small margin but we didn’t capitalise and it was the series that got away.
The following year Great Britain certainly didn’t come close when it really mattered but you still played well enough to top the Tri-Nations group. The thrashing you took in that final must have been so disheartening.
I’d never been so confident of going into a game and winning as in that final. They beat us in the last minute in the first game but we then won three in a row and confidence was high but we didn’t turn up in the final. We were 38-0 down at half-time and, with everyone’s expectations so high, it was a massive disappointment.
How did your short-term move to Bradford come about the following year?
Joey Johns had announced he was going to Warrington and with the Roosters not doing very well, my manager asked me if I wanted to go to Bradford if we didn’t make the play-offs. I thought it was a great idea because in the few years leading up to that I always joined the Great Britain camp a bit behind the rest of the boys in terms of match fitness because the NRL always finishes before the Super League. I’d always had a seven week break before playing Test matches so I thought it was a a good thing to be able to keep my match fitness up as well as to have a bit of success in England after such a disappointing year in Sydney. Bradford were riding high although it was a bit strange to join up with them so late on in the season. It was a great experience to win the Grand Final but it’s one medal that does feel a bit hollow.
Why did you choose to come home and how are things going at Warrington?
We found out that my partner was pregnant and we started thinking about our future. We were happy in Australia but we weren’t too keen on bringing up our child with no grandparents around. As well as that, Warrington’s four year offer brought a lot of security. I’ve settled in very well here although it’s been frustrating to suffer the facial injuries and, as well as that, the team haven’t been playing as well as we’d have liked but hopefully we’ll hit some form over the next few weeks and kick on.
Does the disappointment of the 2008 World Cup still play on your mind?
Yes it does. It was hugely disappointing given all the expectation before we went out there. I’m pretty desperate to get out there again in an England jersey.
What did you think of the RFL’s World Cup inquest?
There are a few factors that played a part in what happened out there but the main one is simply that we didn’t play well enough. A team can maybe carry two or three out-of-form players but not five or six. We let ourselves down.
Were there too many Leeds and Saints players in the squad?
No, they’re the best two teams and they all warranted selection. Tony picked the right team and there shouldn’t be a problem having so many players from two teams. In 1992 when we came close to winning the Ashes, look at the amount of Wigan players we had – the entire starting pack when we won in Melbourne. People talk of a rift between the players but I didn’t notice one. Players socialise in groups – that’s completely normal. But in an ideal world, players from other teams will start to put pressure on the Leeds and Saints players.
Who are the best players you’ve played with and against in each country?
Brad Fittler in Australia; he’s the obvious choice. He was maybe slightly past his best when I played with him but he was still great, not just with what he did on the park but how he led the side. Everyone was confident with him there. In England, that’s a tough one – probably Iestyn Harris. I’m a forward and I’ve picked two backs! Fittler and Harris were very similar. They had a great step of both feet and they led their sides very well.
Gorden Tallis in Australia. He was a hero of mine growing up and we always had good battles when we played against each other. In the UK – hmmmm – good question! I’d say Va’aiga Tuigamala was the hardest I ever had to tackle. I remember once I tackled him around the thighs and he carried me for around eight metres and eventually went down!