‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Paul Deacon in 2007. Deacon has since left the Bulls and now plays for his home-town Wigan, who he helped to Grand Final success in 2010.
How does it feel to be in your testimonial year?
It makes me wonder where the years have gone! I don’t feel that I’ve been at Bradford for ten years because the years have flown by. But by no means do I think I’m nearing the end of my career. The first event is this week with my Launch Dinner on Thursday at 7.30pm at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford. Then next year we’ll be playing Wigan in my testimonial match at Odsal and my big selling point for that one is that both sides will be playing full-strength teams!
Martin Crompton told the League Express Yearbook in 1997 that you had a big future in the game. What do you remember of your time there?
I certainly remember my Super League debut, off the bench, at Central Park which was very special for me because I’d been a season ticket holder there for so many years. I actually walked home from the game! I was a massive Wigan fan and was at all eight of those Wembley wins but they showed no interest in me as a player. I played four games for the Bears, two of which were in the Challenge Cup.
You were virtually unknown when Bradford signed you from Oldham. Were you surprised that the reigning champions wanted to snap you up?
Yes definitely beacuse I’d just signed up to go to university. The Bears went bankrupt and I had no idea what I would do next so I just decided to concentrate on my sports science and mathematics degree and then, out of the blue, Matthew Elliott called me asking me to sign for Bradford. I was a bit gobsmacked to say the least but it turned out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Did you see it as a gamble giving up your studies to pursue a full-time career in sport?
Yes, but I was in a lucky position at first which made things easier because I was only part-time when I joined the Bulls so I could continue studying. I had two days off from uni every week and on those days I trained with the Bulls first team. I also trained one night a week with the Academy and played for them at the weekend. But then Shaun Edwards left halfway through the season. They’d signed him at the same time as me but things didn’t work out for him and Matthew asked me to go full time, so that was when I stopped my studies. I made my debut against Huddersfield just before the mid-point of that season, scoring a try and a goal, although I just had to fall over the line for the try!
The club then signed Henry Paul and you weren’t really a regular starter for the three years that Paul was at Odsal.
That’s right. During that period, the majority of games I played were off the bench which was a bit frustrating, especially as I’d started those games in the back half of 1998. I was on the backburner for a bit after they’d signed Henry, sometimes only coming on for 15 minutes and in the Grand Final, which we lost 8-6 to Saints, I came on for my usual late spell but then Saints scored their try and they sent Robbie back on for me. But Matthew still always picked me in the 17 and showed faith in me and because of that, I kept upbeat and positive. Looking back, it was probably a good thing for me because I wasn’t thrust in at the deep end and I was looked after. I was learning from some top quality players after all.
There have been plenty of highlights for you at the Bulls since then. Which would you pick out?
Winning the Grand Final in 2001 was superb, even though I just came off the bench again. On a personal level, the Grand Final the following year was a highlight because, although we lost, I won the Harry Sunderland award as man of the match. At the time it was horrible to lose, but looking back the award means a lot. Then there’s 2003. That year was the best of the lot; winning the treble. The best memory from that was the Challenge Cup final with us beating Leeds.
The try that you set up just before halftime for Lesley Vainikolo was the turning point that day.
Possibly. It’s satisfying when moves like that come off, especially in a big final. I remember the day before, walking around the stadium with the roof shut and it was surreal practicing my goalkicking in an 80,000 stadium with nobody in it. I also remember the noise. With the roof shut, the atmosphere was deafening on the day of the game.
What have been the highlights of your international career?
Well you always remember your debut. Mine was in a Test match against France in 2001, which acted as a warm-up for the squad ahead of the Ashes series. I then got picked in the third Test at Wigan, which was the decider. That was a huge honour and it was when I realised that I was an international player. But – and I don’t know if I can call this a highlight – the main thing I can remember from playing for Great Britain was getting clouted around the head against New Zealand in the 2005 Tri-Nations.
You were outstanding in that game until that injury. The pictures loked horrific – what are your memories of the incident?
I remember everything. I was totally compus mentus throughout it all which wasn’t necessarily a good thing while I was being treated. I didn’t go to hospital straight after the game because the Great Britain doctor Chris Brookes is an expert with the car crash injuries, as he puts it. He stayed with me in the hotel that night and I watched the repeat on Sky and saw the incident just a few hours after it had happened. It wasn’t that bad a challenge from Nigel [Vagana] to be honest. He got me on a sweet spot and if he’d got me an inch higher, it would have just bust my nose and nothing would have been said. I remember being tackled and being on my hands and knees and seeing all this blood thinking, ‘what have I done here?’. I didn’t break my pallet though, I’m not sure where the newspapers got that from. I broke my upper jaw and snapped my face either side of my nose. I walked off trying to bite my teeth together but they were totally out of sync.
Was there a psychological effect? Were you apprehensive the next time you played?
Not too much but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in my mind at first on some level. But I got over it pretty quickly after consciously deciding to just get over it.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
That’s a very tough question. There have been so many in different areas. There was Cliff Peters, my coach at Hindley juniors, who set me off in the right direction. Then there was Matthew Elliott at the Bulls who taught me the modern game and the attitude that all players need. From then on, I could reel off loads of coaches and players like Brian Noble and Steve McNamara and many many more.
Have you ever been tempted to leave Bradford?
Never. You hear rumours of course, but I’ve never even thought about leaving. I did get an offer from Canberra when Matthew left Bradford to coach them but I wasn’t interested.
What are your hopes for the future?
There’s plenty that I’m still aiming for. I want to play for England in the World Cup next year. I was made up to be selected in the Great Britain squad, which I wasn’t expecting to be honest. although I had top withdraw injured, it’s always great to be recognised at that level. Then, for the Bulls, I want to lift a major trophy for the club. Watching that play-off defeat against Wigan from the stands at Odsal was horrific and we are all determined to bounce back from that.