‘My Life in Rugby League’ with Mick Cassidy filed for League Express in 2008. Cassidy is now retired.
Tell us about your early days at Wigan.
I signed for the club in 1990 and made my debut in 1992 in the Locker Cup game against Warrington. That was a pre-season game but I think my competitive debut was also against Warrington. Playing for the first team was pretty daunting to say the least because there were so many fantastic players in the team. Everyone seemed so much bigger than what I was used to and the games were so fast. But it was a real confidence boost to be getting games and a great experience to play alongside blokes like Andy Platt and Dean Bell.
How good was it to play in the side that won everything?
We actually lost the first two finals I played in! They were against St Helens in the 1993 Premiership final and then in the 1994 Regal Trophy final when Castleford hammered us at Headingley. John Dorahy was coach that season, having taken over from John Monie after that Saints game. Dorahy was a good coach with some very unique ideas, shall we say, but his downfall was that he didn’t get on with the senior players who had big influences. One of his strategies was to hand all of the players a bit of paper and tell them to fill in what they thought the team should be. That was such a strange thing for a coach to do and we had no idea why he was doing it. Maybe he wanted some ideas on who to pick. But we still won leagues and cups and I played in both Challenge Cup finals against Leeds in the mid-’90s. In ’94 I played about 20 minutes and set up Martin [Offiah] for his second try. A year later I started the game but forgot to take my headguard out with me. After nine minutes I went into a tackle on Richie Eyres all wrong, got my head in the wrong place and woke up in the medical room wondering where I was!
By this time you had made your Great Britain debut.
Yes and I couldn’t have made my debut in a better game because it was the game when we beat the Aussies at Wembley with 12 men after Shaun Edwards was sent off. I didn’t take it all in at the time but it’s a great achievement to look back on. They were so far ahead of us back then. Just look at their team, they had legends in every position. I probably remember the build-up more than the game itself. It was great to play for Ellery too. I hadn’t played with him at Wigan but played against him when he went to Leeds. He was so professional as coach and taught us how important it was to win all the little battles on the pitch. I remember being worried that I might miss out when he named the 17 but I was on the bench. I was actually playing the ball when the hooter went. I threw it up in the air and as it came down it hit Paul Harrogan! He was a big fella and wasn’t too happy so I stayed out of the way and joined in all the celebrations.
You also played for England in the 1995 World Cup.
I didn’t play in the opening game but came into the side for a midweek game against Fiji at Central Park which, being a Wigan lad, was a great game to be involved in. I stayed in the side when we played South Africa at Headingey. It was strange to play against them because they weren’t exactly a Rugby League nation at the time! We then beat Wales at Old Trafford in the semi-final and lost to the Aussies in the final at Wembley. The final’s a bit of a blur to me. As usual they raised the bar when they had to and it was devastating at the time. But the whole competition was a fantastic experience because you get so much from meeting and befriending players you don’t know and to be in camp for that long in such a full-on rugby environment is what you play the game for.
The end of the Wigan dominance coincided with the start of Super League. What happened?
Maybe Wigan should go back to playing in the winter! I don’t think they forecasted that other teams would improve so quickly but the Cup tie at Salford in 1996, before Super League kicked off, had a big effect. I didn’t play in that game due to a toe injury but it was a terrible afternoon for the club, the first Cup defeat in nine years. I think that other teams quickly realised that Wigan weren’t indestructible after that. There were still some real highlights in the first few Super League years. We only lost twice in 1996 and the 1997 World Club Challenge was a wonderful experience – I’d like to see them bring it back but with maybe just six teams from both nations. Then in 1998 we won the first Grand Final against Leeds.
In that year you were banned for six matches for a now infamous high and late shot on Adrian Morley at Central Park. What made you do it?
Everywhere I go someone asks me that! The incident is there for everyone to see and it doesn’t look good does it? It was a brain explosion. I didn’t mean to do what I did – I was just trying to put a good shot on him and it went very wrong. People suggested that it was revenge for his shot on our hooker, Robbie McCormack, in the first minute but that wasn’t the case at all. We had some great battles with Leeds that year – real tough battles but we went on to win the one that mattered.
In the rest of your time at Wigan you didn’t manage to win it again. What do you put that down to?
We didn’t replace the good players that we lost. We also let promising players go too quickly, not just in that period but also someone like Sean Long who would have still been with us. There were too many short-term fixes at the club from Australia and New Zealand and while some of them were fantastic in the NRL, sometimes the best players don’t settle in. But we managed to win the Challenge Cup in 2002 against Saints which was a huge thing for us. We weren’t often underdogs in finals but it probably helped us because we knew that if we were less than perfect we wouldn’t win.
Why did you leave Wigan?
Maurice Lindsay retired me! A mate of mine read in the ‘paper that I was retiring according to Maurice which wasn’t the case. So that was his way of saying I wouldn’t be around the next year. Terry O’Connor was also leaving, going to Widnes, so I went with him.
How do you look back on your time with the Vikings?
The highlight was winning the Northern Rail Cup last season. I was also their player of the year in 2005 but we got relegated so it’s not something I look back on with any fondness and it hurt to be relegated to make way for Catalans. I loved my time there and I was shocked to see them miss out on a Super League licence because they have a great set-up in all aspects – commercially, youth structure and a superb stadium with very good crowds. Their exclusion isn’t good for the game.
Are you enjoying playing for Barrow?
Absolutely! It makes a change to play with part-time players and it’s been a real eye opener. I’m involved with the coaching and conditioning which is great for me because I want to carry on in the game in some capacity after I retire. This is my last year as a player.
Congratulations on making the initial Ireland World Cup squad!
Thanks. I played in the 1995 competition as we mentioned and if you’d told me then I’d be in with a chance of playing in another World Cup 13 years later, I’d have thought you were crazy. Playing for Ireland has been a great experience and I’m very proud to do it