One of the finest players of the modern era, Scully spoke to me for a Rugby League World article midway through 2010.
PAUL Sculthorpe claims to be fitter than ever. Fit enough to handle Super League.
But the man who won has accumulated more medals than you can shake a stick at during a glorious, success-laden St Helens career is more than happy to don a shirt and tie, sit behind a desk and carry out his duties as the club’s Business Development Manager.
Sure, he’s jumped out of a ‘plane or two, endured the odd 400-mile bike ride in 40-degree French heat and run a couple of half marathons, but, sadly, his professional rugby days are well and truly over. And when I ask him if that’s because of injuries, he nearly bites my head off, bristling at the injury-prone tag that accompanied the latter stages of his career.
Along with his brother Danny, Sculthorpe was reportedly offered a chance to join Brian Noble’s Wrexham Crusade, but has no regrets over turning down such an opportunity.
“I spoke to Nobby, who I have a lot of respect for but I don’t think it was ever going to happen because I have a good job at Saints and other business interests outside of Rugby League,” says the two-time Man of Steel. “They’d have gone on the backburner if I’d gone back playing, and I didn’t want things to suffer that could help set me up for the rest of my life.
“But I’m definitely fit enough to have handled it. If you look at the injuries, they were freak injuries. My knee was the one that threatened to stop my career but I’ve done half-marathons since I stopped playing and I haven’t felt anything at all in my knee. I once bust my shoulder reaching out for the tryline – that’s just bad luck; so was snapping my Achilles. But I feel great now and my body would still stand up to Super League.
“I was out of contract at Saints and I was sick of doing rehab and missing out on playing, so I felt it was time to call it a day. But I still socialise with the players and speak to them regularly. It’s a big part of your life when you’ve been in an environment like that every day for the last ten years. It’s great to still be here and be involved with them.
“I now work in business development for the club. It’s mainly working with sponsors, doing promotions and other stuff. I’m really enjoying it – I’ve always liked dealing with the sponsors and other such people and I was delighted when Saints offered me the role. The business side of things at the club always interested me.
“I also jumped out of a ‘plane for them recently! It was brilliant, absolutely awesome. It came about because a friend of mine used to be a Red Devil and he asked me if I wanted to do a jump in June for their anniversary and I agreed to thinking it would raise money for the Steve Prescott Foundation. But the club got wind of it and asked if I’d do it at the start of the season to launch the new shirt and they made a donation to the Foundation instead. It was 14,000 feet and it took 70 seconds – which went pretty quickly! I got up to 158 miles per hour apparently. The original one that was scheduled for the Foundation is still going ahead on the first of June.”
It’s clear that Sculthorpe’s charity work means a lot to him, largely because he and Prescott are close. The former Saints fullback was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer in 2006 and given six months to live. Remarkably he continues to fight the disease and has raised tens of thousands of pounds for good causes, embarking upon a wide range of gruelling physical challenges.
“To do the stuff we’ve done for Steve and his Foundation is very satisfying,” Sculthorpe says. “He’s a great friend of mine and he’s a great guy. Everyone should get behind him because he’s done some great things and he’s done every single mile of everything alongside us. You just wouldn’t think he’s suffering with cancer.
“Steve left [Saints] as I joined, but I played with him for Great Britain Academy and also England and we’ve always got on. He’s one of those loveable guys who everyone likes. There’s nothing about him not to like and it’s great how everyone has got behind him. I remember exactly where I was when I found out about Steve. I was in David Lloyd’s [gymnasium] doing weights when one of the lads came over and told us. It was one of those moments you never forget – it was devastating. I contacted one of Steve’s best mates and asked what I could do. In the end I sent Steve a text and within a minute I got a reply. He knows he has the support of a lot of people.
“He sets himself goals, trains for things and at the end of the day he’s a winner and he’ll do everything he can to fight it. He knows there are plenty of people who are 120 percent behind him.”
Sculthorpe is also friends with the former Warrington, Wakefield and Leigh player, Ian Knott, who is currently suffering from a debilitating and chronic back problem. The XIII Heroes Charity has been instrumental in raising much-needed funds for him.
“Knotty’s been so unfortunate,” Sculthorpe says sorrowfully. “I played with him in the under-9s all the way through to Warrington. It’s horrible what he’s gone through, suffering so much with his back.”
Sculthorpe’s magnificent playing career saw him win two Man of Steel awards as Super League’s best player, three Super League rings (he declined a fourth after missing the 2006 final with injury), four Challenge Cup medals and two World Club Challenge medals. He was awarded the Great Britain captaincy in 2005 and won 26 GB caps and four for England. In 1998 he was transferred from Warrington to St Helens for £370,000 after turning down London Broncos – their chairman, Richard Branson, flew him down to the capital in his helicopter. Sculthorpe has been a giant of the modern era by anybody’s standard, not least the notoriously hard-to-please former Great Britain captain, Garry Schofield, who rates him as the only player who played regularly in the Super League era, who would make a 1982-2009 Great Britain side.
“I don’t really miss playing to be honest,” says Sculthorpe. “I’m training more than ever – six days a week and I’ve never felt better. It’s great feeling so fit and I’m doing it for myself now. But when the big games come along, I wish I was out there but, unlike a lot of ex-players, I’m still at the club and seeing the players all the time. I still feel part of the club which is important to me. I think back to my playing days a fair bit. I had a good career and did everything I wanted to do in the game apart from win the Ashes. I got out of the game what I wanted to do and have no regrets at all.”
I ask Sculthorpe to name his favourite game and he plumps for the 2004 Challenge Cup final – I guessed he’d go for the opening Test of the 2001 Ashes when his man-of-the-match display led Great Britain to a wonderful 20-12 win in front of a jubilant Huddersfield crowd. “If I had to pick out a favourite game I’d choose the 2004 Cup final. The Challenge Cup is so special because of its history but it was special for me for a few reasons. It was against Wigan and, no matter what Leeds and Bradford say, it’s still the biggest derby game. I was up against my brother Danny which was a massive thing for the family and I was captain, so I collected the Challenge Cup which was a fantastic thing to do.
“Second would be that Test in 2001. Beating Australia is always special and I had a good game that day, scoring a couple of tries and a couple of drop-goals. It’s definitely one that stands out.”
Ultimately, 2001 joined the ever-growing list of missed chances for Great Britain or England as the Kangaroos pulled level at Bolton in emphatic style before wrapping up the series with a 20-point win at Wigan. Even worse was to follow in 2003, when we didn’t even get the customary first-up win. Britain matched the Aussies toe-to-toe in all three tests, but lost them all to late scores.
“2003 was unbelievable,” Sculthorpe recalls with a grimace. “We were leading every game after 75 minutes and lost them all. It was so frustrating to be so near yet so far but it just goes to show the mentality of the Australians. They play right to the end and we suffered for it.”
Sculthorpe was handed the British captaincy after Andy Farrell, who had held the post since 1996, switched codes at the end of 2004. Unfortunately for Sculthorpe, injuries limited his leadership to one Test – the mid-season game at St Helens against New Zealand in 2006.
“It was a big thing for me to be chosen as Great Britain captain,” he says with pride. “The fact it didn’t work out for me because of the injuries wasn’t ideal but to be given the honour was massive. I had to pull out in 2005 with knee surgery and I missed out again in 2006, but I had some great times at international level and it brought the best out of me as a player.”
But Sculthorpe dismisses suggestions that he could have won the captaincy earlier. In nine years as Great Britain or England captain, Farrell’s leadership delivered no series wins and a number of Australian pundits, most notably Peter Sterling, rated Sculthorpe a great player, but not his predecessor. “I don’t agree with any of that – definitely not. Faz was a magnificent captain, he led by example with his performances like JP [Jamie Peacock] does now. It’s difficult to tell players what to do when you’re not doing it yourself. You lead with your performance and Faz always did that. I’ve known Andy since we were kids, way before we were pros. His dad coached me at under-11s. People mention that Good Friday incident but that’s Rugby League for you. We were both desperate for our teams to win but off the pitch you’re mates again.”
So, having discussed a number of so-near-yet-so-far cases for Great Britain, what has to change at international level for England to be successful?
“There’s got to be no short-term answers,” Sculthorpe says emphatically. “You have to bring more British kids through, reduce the overseas quota and develop the game. I run summer camps and it’s gone absolutely beserk. So many kids want to play Rugby League that I’ve got more camps than ever lined up this year and we’re doing a lot in schools in both Lancashire and Yorkshire.
“Long term, that’s the key. How many years have we suffered from a lack of halfbacks? We went to the World Cup with one scrum-half [Rob Burrow] and the next choice was a teenager playing in National League One [Richie Myler]. Now we have Sam Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond coming through, but let’s not move away from the fact that we have to produce more and more.
“When we’ve had injuries we’ve sometimes had to use players who aren’t international standard. We have to build up strength in depth. Look at the Australians – when I played against them and they lost Andrew Johns, Brett Kimmorley came in. They had that calibre of replacement all over the park. Maybe we won’t beat the Aussies for another ten years – but I’m not saying we won’t. We just have to focus mainly on developing more players.
“It’s the best game in the world. Anyone who’s seen the game will tell you that and people who haven’t seen it often love it when they see it for the first time. But we still have to address our faults and as far as this is concerned, we have to bring more players through, starting at the bottom.”
As you’d expect Sculthorpe is as in love with Rugby League as ever. He may no longer be at the coalface, but he’s an avid viewer with plenty of opinions. Like a lot of people, he’s happy with the state of Super League, witnessing a steady year-on-year improvement in playing standards and competitiveness. We are speaking after round three – Leeds have lost two of their games and Saints have recovered from a comprehensive round-one defeat at home to Hull, after which coach Mick Potter came under intense pressure from his own supporters if internet forums are anything to go by, to record comprehensive wins away to Bradford and Catalans.
“Everyone’s getting used to being back playing and Leeds losing a couple of early games was a surprise to most,” Sculthorpe says. “It’s not a bad thing for the game, though. It’s what we need. It’s going to be a tough year for everyone because everybody’s strengthened. Hull looked great at St Helens and Sean Long and Craig Fitzgibbon will make a big difference to them. They might be the wrong end of 30 but if you’re fit and performing then age is just a number.”
Sculthorpe agrees that Saints could be in a time of transition after losing himself and Long in successive years with their third modern-day great, Keiron Cunningham, set to hang up his boots at the end of the current campaign. “I think that’s right. When you’ve had players who have been together for 10 or 11 years, the team gels; and we played in key positions as well. The same thing happened in 2003 when we lost some key figures and there was pressure on us back then because this is a club that demands success.
“If you look at the team and the squad as a whole, the club have certainly done things right in giving the young blokes a chance and hopefully that will bear fruit in the next few years. A policy like that could see us through for another ten years. Mick’s blooded a lot of young and inexperienced players who are in the full-time squad so things are going to take time. If you get success at Saints then people think you were supposed to. If you don’t, then you’re the villain. That’s the way the club is – it’s always been successful and the expectations are massive. I get on well with Mick. We talk a lot – I speak to him on an alternative level to the players and we ask each other plenty of stuff.”
A week after Potter suffered a mauling at the hands of his own supporters, it was the turn of Bradford’s Steve McNamara to come under scrutiny after Saints racked up an easy 38-6 win at Odsal.
“I feel really sorry for Steve McNamara,” says Sculthorpe. “When Leon [Pryce], Gilly [Lee Gilmour] and Paul Anderson came over to Saints, they had nothing but good wraps on Steve Mac and all said what a good coach he was going to become. I sympathise with him because they lost so many good players around the time he was taking over. They were key players who left and it’s been a massive job. He’s been very unfairly criticised in my opinion.”
The other big talking point in the opening weeks of Super League was Terry Newton’s failed drugs test. He tested positive for a human growth hormone and has been kicked out of the game for two years. While Sculthorpe is reluctant to discuss the plight of his former Great Britain colleague, he believes the Rugby Football League are doing enough – and have done enough in recent years – to counter the cheats.
“I got drug-tested quite a lot,” he remembers. “It’s supposed to be random but I regularly got tested after internationals which I decided to take as a compliment! I 100-percent agreed with being tested so much and I’m firmly behind all measures that are taken. The testing guys would come along and you’d be told after the game that you’d be chosen. They’d go with you, and you’d do your stuff and they’d take the sample away. I’ve never been blood tested but they’re doing that pre-season now I think. The RFL are doing enough. You can’t do more than test the players and it’s done in and out of season. We used to choose an hour a day when you’d be available for testing and I chose between six and seven in the morning. If you’ve nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be an issue. Some people were against it – having to tell people where you are and the general inconvenience; for instance, if you were away you had to give them your holiday destination. It’s still not that difficult to do. Obviously I was always going to be at home at 6am. One day they got me on a Tuesday after Mad Monday and I’d only just got home. I bet that was an interesting specimen for them!”