‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Saints’ Mike Bennett in 2008. Bennett is now retired from playing.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
I’ll go for two games. The Grand Final in 2002 against Bradford was my first final. I was chosen to start in the second row with Tim Jonkers which surprised a few people but Ian Millward picked us as two young mobile forwards because he wanted to move the big Bradford pack around. I also scored our first try as well. We ended up winning with Longy’s late drop goal and it was also the final when Bradford’s players accused Chris Joynt of a voluntary tackle. There’s also last season’s Challenge Cup final against Catalans. I wasn’t involved in the 2002 final and missed out in 2004 and 2006 due to injury so to finally play in one was very special, especially with it being back at Wembley. It took us a while to break the Dragons down and James Roby’s try when he came on was a beauty.
When did you sign for Saints?
I signed in 1995 as an amateur and I’d love to finish my career here. I started to play Academy when I was 16 but was still studying. Nick Halafihi was our coach and Paul Wellens, Tim Jonkers, Lee Briers and, later, Mark Edmondson were with us back then. Mike Gregory came in and I played A-Team under him. When I finished at uni, I went straight into the top squad full-time.
What did you graduate in?
I studied chemistry at Liverpool Uni and got a BSc. It could come in handy when I finish playing because I don’t know what I’ll do when I retire from the game.
Did you have many dealings with Ellery Hanley when he coached Saints?
Yes, in 2000 he called me into his office and told me that I interested him as a player and that he wanted me to be involved in the first-team squad for a pre-season friendly. Paul Newlove came down with an illness so I got a game but a couple of games later, Ellery was sacked.
As it turned out, your career flourished under his successor Ian Millward.
That’s right, Ian gave me a chance and I became a fully-fledged member of the squad under him but I’ve taken something from every coach I’ve played under.
After that first Grand Final win for you, the club had to wait four years to win another.
After 2002, the following year proved to be a bit of a redevelopment year for the club but then Apollo [Perelini] came in as our conditioner and helped turn things around, resulting in the Challenge Cup win over Wigan at Cardiff. But I missed that game through injury after hurting myself in the first Cup game against Bradford. In 2005, we won the Minor Premiership but had key players sidelined and went out in the play-offs before we made up for it in 2006.
You also played for England in 2006.
That’s right. It was against France at Headingley but missed the other games because I needed a shoulder operation. I also played for England on a tour to Fiji and Tonga under John Kear a few years earlier. It was a great tour with guys like Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Ade Gardner, Ryan Hudson and Mickey Higham. We had a couple of weeks training in Australia and then went on to Fiji winning the first game. Then they changed the venue for the second game at short notice meaning we had a big bus journey halfway across Fiji under a different ref who gave about 30 or 40 penalties against us for daft things like not packing down correctly in the scrum! Four of five of us were sin-binned including Sean O’Loughlin who was also sent off for questioning a decision. We ended up losing in the last few seconds!
Is it a big ambition of yours to play for the full England side?
It is and I’m no different to any player in that regard. I’m not getting any younger – I’m 28 – but if it came along then it would be brilliant. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but I’m very happy just playing for Saints but if anything else comes along I’d grab it with both hands.
Out of the Saints squad, you have one of the lowest profiles. Is that a good or bad thing for you?
I think it reflects the type of game I play because I’m not the flashiest nor most entertaining player to watch but I’ve got a job to do and I think I do it. My role is to carry the ball, defend and lay a platform for the likes of Sean Long and Jon Wilkin to do their stuff and I love that role. I don’t think I’d be good at throwing the 30-yard passes to set people up for tries!
Did Daniel Anderson change much when he took over from Millward?
He didn’t come in and overhaul everything which was a good thing. He tweaked little things like, say, marker defence and he implemented his system over time. Looking back, he made us better defensively. There had been games when we might have conceded 40 points but we now defend our line better under Daniel.
Daniel’s obviously done a great job at Saints but if you don’t win Super League this year, he’ll have only won one in four which isn’t really a true reflection of how well he’s done. Is there an extra determination to send him out a winner?
Absolutely. We set ourselves goals at the start of the year and Daniel’s been great for us all, improving all of us individually so it would be fitting if we can win the Super League Grand Final. Leeds are the team to beat but we feel we’re playing some really good stuff after an indifferent start.
Saints have started seasons well then tailed away so you must be aware that Leeds might do the same.
That’s right and they’re not out of touch. We’ve still got to play them twice and we’ve come into some great form lately.
Do you have any opinions on Mick Potter taking over from Daniel next year?
We don’t know much about him but we can see that’s done well and he’s always brought in good people to work with so we’re sure he’s the right guy. He might be similar to Daniel, having both worked under Brian Smith but we’re just concentrating on this year under Daniel for now.
What did you think of Millennim Magic?
If it’s a nice day they need to open the roof. When they don’t the pitch is dewy and it’s humid so it’s just the same as a wet-weather game. The crowd also needs to be bigger or maybe they need to move it to a smaller stadium. If they use the second Bank Holiday in May they could use the City of Manchester stadium and it would probably sell out both days.
You’ve played with a number of great players. Which have had the biggest impact on your career?
Keiron Cunningham and Chris Joynt. Keiron takes all the forwards into a huddle after the warm-up every week and he always knows what to say. He’s great to listen to and to take advice from in general. When I first came in, Joynty was great with the young players. We all went to him with issues whether they were to do with playing or something like buying a house or a new pair of boots. He was a great captain.