‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Mark Edmondson in 2007. Edmondson is one of the few Englishmen to try his hand in the NRL in recent years but only played for the Roosters twice with a shoulder injury hampering much of his preparation for the season. He returned to England to play for Salford – a largely unhappy year, before he signed for Castleford only for injury to prevent him from representing the Tigers. Retired from the game, he now lives in Australia.
How did you get into Rugby League Mark?
I was playing for the North of England rugby union team against Wales when I got spotted by Paul Wellens’s dad who was a scout at Saints. I was doing OK in union and had been offered scholarships by a couple of big union schools. I’d watched plenty of Rugby League though, so I was well aware of players like Hanley and Offiah. So as soon as Saints came in, I was off. They told me to come and trial for the Academy and after three trial games, they signed me up for three and a half years. We had a decent Academy side with blokes like Scott Barrow, Paul Wellens, Tony Stewart, Tim Jonkers, Mike Bennett and John Stankevitch in there.
What do you remember of your early days at Saints?
Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe had just come to the club when I arrived and they were superstars. I didn’t know too many of the first-teamers back then but it was still a magical place to be around. I used to love watching the Super League games that were on after we’d finished our Academy games. It was great watching them and aspiring to be like them.
The pressure on you must be huge because no matter how good an Academy side is, the reality is that at least half of the players won’t make it in the game.
Yes. I remember some world beaters in that Academy side and they were doing things miles better than I was back then. But they didn’t have the full package. They may have been physical or skilful enough but they didn’t have the discipline to train, to put the extra hours in and they get sloppy. Eventually they get binned. You can never relax in this game.
You made your first team debut under Ellery Hanley. Coming from union, did you realise how big he was in Rugby League?
Definitey. I’d idolised him. It was fantastic to play for him and his philosophy was great. I remember him saying how much he loved waking up every day because he loved his job and life in general basically. He came on board after Shaun McRae, at the same time that I was taken on full-time. He admired players who gave everything and, even though, I didn’t think I was first team standard, he saw something and I made my debut against Salford and then started in the Good Friday derby against Wigan. I played for the first 25 minutes and I was hooked.
What was the pace of that Wigan game like compared to what you were used to?
It was unbelievable and that’s why I had to come off after 25 minutes! I did OK. Jason Robinson kept running at me but I got him down every time. I played 17 games in total in 1999 and came out with a Grand Final winner’s ring at the end of it. For my first year, it was wonderful.
Were you worried when Ellery left?
Yes, because when Ian Millward came in, I’d just started to get established and then I got a back injury that put me out for a full season. In 2001, I was told I was going out on loan but there was an injury in the first team and I scored a 40 metre try for them. It was in 2003 that I started to mature as a player. First up were the Roosters in the World Club Challenge when we lost 38-0. That was a kick up the backside because, even though we were the champions, we’d just been shown we could still get better. They showed us what a professional outfit could do. After that, in the Super League, I got a couple of man-of-the-match awards and I was so happy with myself that I could win awards like that bearing in mind the standard of player that I was playing with.
You played for England as well.
I’d played for England against South Africa with a 21s side and in 2003, I toured Fiji and Tonga with them. I was living the dream, because I’d always wanted to play rugby union for England and then in League when I changed codes. Those tours were fantastic experiences for me. The games in South Africa were one-sided but the Fiji and Tonga games were tough. They were played in 110-degrees heat on a concrete, dusty pitch and as you passd a ball, a Fijian tackled you about ten minutes later.
Then 2004 brought you a Challenge Cup winner’s medal.
It was amazing. I hadn’t played in a major final even though I’d been at the club a while. I’d contributed to the Super League games and the Challenge Cup runs but had always missed out on the final until this. I loved every minute of it and all the training we put in that year paid off. We’d struggled in 2003 but brought new players in and were determined to put things right.
2005 is remembered at Saints for Millward’s sacking. Then when he came back to Saints as the Wigan coach, you scored a hat-trick.
When Ian went, it was hard but we just had to get on with our job and try and ignore all the stuff in the media because we had a job to do on the pitch. When something affects your livelihood, you’ve got to be focused. You pick that up off from the great players around you. As for that Cup game against Wigan, I was due for contract talks but they kept getting postponed. So I was desperate to show Daniel what I could do and the hat-trick was perfect timing. I was over the moon with that and the contract talks went well but then the Roosters came in for me.
How did that move come about?
They’d seen some footage of me and they were obviously looking for a certain type of player. Maybe they’d seen that Cup game with Wigan, who knows? They got in touch with me, asking if I’d send them some more tapes of myself, which I did, and they snapped me up. If an opportunity comes along then you take it.
Did you have to take a pay cut like Adrian Morley did?
No, I ended up with more. The top players can’t earn the top money over there but, not being a Great Britain player, I hadn’t been a big earner in England and I was on a bit more than St Helens had offered. Having said that, I’d have gone for less money. It turned out well though despite my injuries because I met my fiancee out there and now we’re expecting a child. Going out there has changed my life and there were so many positives to come out of it. Of course, I wish I’d played more games but I went out there with a shoulder injury and picked up another injury out there. Unfortunately, if you’re body’s not up to it, then you’re not playing.
Didn’t that shoulder injury keep you out of the England games in 2005, before you left for Australia?
Yes, Karl Harrison was coaching England and asked if I’d play but I had to turn him down because I’d just had shoulder surgery and I was shortly due to fly out to Australia. The injury meant that I hardly got any pre-season done in Austraia and I was just doing what I could. As the months went by, I played a few reserve games and then made the NRL side for a game agaisnt Brisbane. The game was of a similar pace to England but the standard of the game was better with less mistakes and better kicking games in the NRL. The ball is in play for longer too which really tests you.
Which people over there had a big influence on you?
Brad Fittler probably. He was the guy who would take people aside and give them pointers. There were some things I didn’t agree on though like the three hour training sessions, which I thought were too long. At Saints, we’d train for an hour but it was really intense and high quality. But, even though we didn’t have the best year, how they trained as a pack was impressive. But I didn’t play too many more games for them because, after my shoulder injury, I got some bulging disks in my back. The shoulder had tightened up and was higher than the other one which left my body out of sync. I was in excruciating pain and also had stiffness in the morning and after training. After my second game against the Bulldogs, I felt sick and my back spasmed in the following training session. For about three weeks, all I could do was walk. A specialist picked up the imbalance but after I came back, it went again. The specialist told me to take the rest of the year off and I wouldn’t need an operation.
What happened at the Roosters after that?
Well, I’d only played twice so, at a meeting to discuss my season so far, they asked if I wanted to stay or go. They said that if I stayed, they couldn’t guarantee me anything and, because I’d missed pre-season and then had to miss the end of the year as well, they told me that they’d planned for the next season without me. So, with that in mind, I decided to get home. A few clubs came in for me but I liked what was happening at Salford. I wanted to start games and I also wanted to be in Lancashire. The money was good, although that wasn’t the main thing. The new stadium also excited me and it just felt right. I still don’t regret it despite the season so far in 2007. Things happen for a reason, and it’s a learning curve at the moment.