I first spoke to Peter Sterling, one of the game’s greatest-ever players, for Thirteen before the Challenge Cup final in 2005, when his former club Hull were taking on Leeds, 20 years after his Wembley appearance for the Black & Whites in that classic Cup Final against Wigan. Sterling went on to write a superb monthly column for Rugby League World in my first year as editor, 2007.
Firstly Peter, how is Paul Vautin? [Vautin was almost killed a few months earlier while filming for The Footy Show.]
I just got off the ‘phone to him 30 seconds ago and he’s not well. He’s been told by various medical people and neurosurgeons that he will get better but they can’t tell him when so it’s a matter of time. He’s struggling at the moment, sounding a bit depressed and we want him back.
Were you there at the time of the accident?
No I wasn’t. It wasn’t a particularly good time because my father had just passed away. But it was something pretty simple compared to what they’ve had us doing in the past like jumping out of planes and sitting on the back of bulls. But it’s the little things that tend to get you.
What made Jack Gibson so unique?
The thing with Jack is he’s one of these rare individuals who has a profound effect on your life. I haven’t been coached by Jack for over 20 years now but he’s still the first person I ring if I need any advice. The beauty of Jack was that he was more concerned with the quality of individual away from the football field in that if you were happy then that would come through in your game and conversely if you weren’t it might affect you on the field. You always felt that he cared more about you as a person than as a footballer and one helped the other. Jack taught me and the other guys what it took to be successful in life in general and the qualities that you need as a human being and that guys who played under him tended to become better people not just players.
Your debut must have been quite daunting – as an 18-year-old in a semi-final against Manly out of position at fullback!
Yeah I certainly remember it and I don’t have too good memories about it! I probably played to the best of my ability that day but that my ability didn’t warrant the selection. There were a lot of injuries at the club and that’s why I played but in the end I think I became a better player. Years down the track I probably handled the pressure situations better because of that debut. It’s probably one of the greatest things that ever happened in my career even though, at the time, it was disappointing.
How nervous were you?
Well, like any person going into something new and in front of such a big crowd it was only natural I was nervous. I always had faith in my ability so I wasn’t concerned about that but the fear of failure and the fear of letting your team mates down is probably first and foremost. I was extremely nervous but I think that went once the game started.
You were originally a stand-off weren’t you?
Yes. I came to Parramatta as a stand-off and played there in the lower grades until a former great player in his own right – coach John Peard – hinted to me that I should start practicing feeding scrums. So I knew that’s where my future lay.
What are your favourite memories of your time at the club?
The first Grand Final win. I was fortunate to play in four winning sides but the first is the most memorable. The club will win it again but never for the first time again and to be a part of that and the celebrations was amazing. The area is very working class. Absenteeism was always higher in the workforce in the area after a loss because the club had such an effect on people’s lives. That’s what it meant to people and it came through in the 1981 celebrations. So out of the four, the first was the sweetest.
What happened to Parramatta after 1986?
I think we might have rested on our laurels a bit. Our recruitment was poor as well. One thing that success shows you is that what’s good enough one year isn’t good enough the next. You have to improve and I don’t think we did. We dropped off the pace and in this competition – even in the eighties – it’s always difficult to catch up. You have to have respect for clubs like Canterbury who even in leaner times are finishing fifth, sixth or seventh not towards the tail and we couldn’t do that. We missed out in the play offs in 1987 and never recovered.
I remember a game in 1987 against the Roosters where you were given a 10/10 rating for your performance by Rugby League Week, a real rarity for them. Was that your best-ever performance?
I don’t know about that. I played well that day and things went right but there were other performances that probably gave me more satisfaction. The opening of Parramatta Stadium in 1986 was one. The club and the people had waited so long for it and there was a lot of hardship in getting the stadium built. So the expectations when it finally arrived were very big. The first game was against St George and if we hadn’t won it would have been a huge anti climax. We won 36-6 and I probably played as well that afternoon as in any other game.
What are your memories of your time at Hull FC?
Magnificent memories. In my book I wrote that my year and a half there was the most enjoyable year and a half out of my football career and when you consider that I was lucky enough to play for fifteen years and in Sydney with a club that won four Premierships that shows how I regard my time at Hull. I loved every second of it. I loved the people, the football, the accents and the lifestyle. I met a girl and played good footy. It’s a very fond memory and I still say that out of my whole career the most I enjoyed was my time with the Airlie Birds and I look back on it with a smile on my face.
Do you remember your Hull debut lining up against Wally Lewis?
Yeah against Wakefield Trinity. We were up against Wally and his brother Scott Lewis. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I do remember our winger was termed a triallist and he scored a try. In the paper the next day he was just listed as A.N. Other. I remember thinking that in Australia he’d have been the headline for scoring on his debut. So I always remember that! I also remember Mick Crane, a fantastic player. He was smoking a cigarette as we went out and I’m sure that in breaks of play he’d be at the dug-out getting a few more puffs! He was one of the most skilful players I saw; very similar to Steve Norton.
What was your opinion of the standards of English rugby league back then?
I think it’s the same as now in that people who underestimate it don’t know what it’s all about. You play a lot of football over there. While the standard isn’t the same as in Australia, it’s still very tough. I tell players now that if they’re thinking of going to England for a holiday then they’re in for a rude shock. It was the same when I was there. There were some wonderful players over there. The consistency may not be there in that you’ll play a hard team every week but the standard’s getting better. I enjoyed the football there and the toughness of it is what I remember.
Who were the best players at the club?
I was a pretty big Manly supporter before I went to Parra and Norton, along with Phil Lowe and Gary Stephens, was my idol and to play in the same team as him was great. He was probably the most skilful. We had a really cosmopolitan team. The Kiwis were wonderful contributors in James Leuluai, Fred Ah Kuoi, Gary Kemble and Dane O’Hara. We had some good young blokes who were super players like Gary Divorty and the little hooker Shaun Patrick but the guy I’d admit enjoying being around was David Topliss. He’s such an icon of the game and so well respected over here because of what he did with Balmain. But, for me, to go to a club and play in between Topliss and Norton was fantastic. Then there were Lee Crooks and Garry Schofield too. We had a very talented football team and I enjoyed being part of it.
What do you remember of the Challenge Cup replay wins over Widnes and Castleford in 1985?
I’d missed the first Widnes game with injury and played in the replay, at night, at their place. It was a tough game but I always thought we’d win whereas I thought we’d thrown away our chance against Castleford in the first game. They had a couple of very dangerous players like Thompson the front rower who worked very well with the Beardmore brothers. We had a lot of problems containing them and I had my own problems by having a run-in with Malcolm Reilly. I wasn’t too impressed with some of the treatment that night. But I’ll never forget the final siren going and realising we were going to Wembley. Wembley for us Australians is so special, getting up early in the morning to watch the big games there and us getting there made the whole trip even more worthwhile.
And what about Wembley?
Oh… very disappointing. This might sound strange but it’s probably the first time I’ve felt successful being in a losing team. What I mean about that is the fact that I enjoyed the occasion but I’d have loved to have won for the same reason the Parramatta victories were so sweet in what it would have meant to the supporters and the club. But I was devastated to lose. I got a lot of praise for my performance but I think I missed too many tackles and made too many mistakes. However I still think that if Brett Kenny hadn’t played then we’d have won comfortably.
Is it something he’d wind you up about when you were back in Australia?
No, not really! He did get a bit of criticism though for being a bit too laid back about the whole occasion but that’s just him all over. I was more worried seeing him that relaxed before the game thinking, “shit, we’re in trouble here.” He was disappointed for me in the same way that I was happy for him and it was good that we got to share the experience.
Was that the only time you played against him?
Jeez… that’s a good question. I might have played against him in the City v Country games but I don’t remember doing so.
Have you watched the video of the final many times?
No. I get too disappointed watching it. I like watching the teams coming out and seeing the crowd and all that kind of stuff. To be quite honest mate, maybe the blows have lessened a bit over the years!
You agreed to sign for Leeds in a couple of years later, but an ankle injury prevented it…
Yeah I did. To this day I’m a bit of a fatalist. I believe in karma. I look back on that decision and wonder whether it was the right one. I’m a loyal person. I only ever played for one club here and since then I’ve only ever worked for Channel Nine. Maybe it was fate kicking in that I got injured in the last game of the Australian season at Brookvale Oval against Manly because if I was going to go back to England it should have been to Hull. Part of the Leeds contract was that I was fit and able to go but obviously I wasn’t. I did the ligaments and I’d have been better off breaking it. But it’s no disrespect to Leeds. I was attracted to them because they had a strong team with Malcolm Reilly in charge.
You went away as number-two scrum-half in 1982 behind Steve Mortimer but returned well and truly as number one. You seemed to revel in the English conditions…
In truth I was probably number three behind Steve Mortimer and Mark Murray. I’d have been quite happy to play on the wing in a midweek game in the snow at Blackpool! I was just happy to be there. As it turned out I got a chance in the first game and never looked back. It was probably down to winning the Grand Final and a number of players in the squad hadn’t played for about six weeks so maybe that’s why they went with me. It was the same for Brett Kenny and we had quite a Parramatta connection with Ray Price at lock, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe.
So did Wally Lewis end up missing out because it made sense to pair Kenny with you because of the club connection?
Well…you’d have to ask Frank Stanton that but I guess that was probably it. We’d both played pretty well early on tour. I don’t know if Frank had any preconceived ideas about using us in the halves or whether it just panned out like that. If I’d been Steve Mortimer and Wally Lewis, I’d have been pretty dirty too but it’s a game of twists and turns and, on this occasion, it went my way.
Most of the Tests you played in were one sided but who were the best Great Britain players you faced?
Ellery Hanley was something very special. I also got great delight in playing opposite Steve Nash and Andy Gregory was a good, tough competitor. I’ve caught up with him a few times and he doesn’t seem to have changed too much! Probably the pick of the Englishmen were Hanley, Garry Schofield and I’ve got a soft spot for Lee Crooks who was a wonderful talent. We probably didn’t see the best of him in Australia to be honest.
What are your favourite tour memories from 1982 and 1986?
Just that I was a young bloke going to a new country. All the lads got on and we had a lot of success. I remember the game at the Boulevard where we won narrowly in 1982 and that was a big factor in me going back to Hull the following year. Grothe got the winning try and the crowd was great. The two tours were very different. In 1982 I was just chuffed to be there. In 1986 I was vice captain and one of the established players so my expectations were much higher.
Do you watch English rugby league?
Yes absolutely. I’m pretty good mates with Tony Rea so I’m keen to see how London get on. Obviously I watch Hull and hope they can finish third and of course win the Challenge Cup against Leeds! I watch all the footy I can.
Which Great Britain players do you rate?
I’ve got a big rap on Paul Sculthorpe. I tend to look at the players to see who could make it in the NRL. He’d do well over here so would Keiron Cunningham if he’s not carrying an injury. He’s obviously a very talented player. Then there’s Danny McGuire who did so well in the Tri Nations, Keith Senior’s played well at international level for a long time and I can see why the Roosters are interested in Stuart Fielden. But if I was the Chief Executive of an NRL club then Sculthorpe and Cunningham are the two signatures I’d be pursuing.
How can international rugby league reach the heights of years gone by?
I think it’s going okay at the moment. I don’t mind the fact that international rugby league is basically three nations at the moment. Rugby union boasts about the number of nations it has but a lot of the games are very uncompetitive. Yes, we need to nurture France and Papua New Guinea as well as some of the Island nations but we still have to concentrate on the big three. The clubs have to be selfless and release their players. For instance there’s talk of Canterbury pressuring Sonny Bill Williams not to play in the Tri Nations but I don’t think they should have a choice. Also, Karmichael Hunt. If he’s born in New Zealand, he’s a New Zealander and I don’t want him playing State of Origin. Same with the English clubs when it comes to releasing Kiwis. Any club has to let their players play international football.
Would you support Jamie Lyon’s call-up to the Australian side if it happened?
I’m very disappointed with Lyon because he dudded Parramatta in getting paid a lot of money for an off season and one game in 2004. But in answer to your question, if he’s playing well enough, which he is judging by the reports, then I’d have no qualms about him playing in the test team.
Can Great Britain or New Zealand win the Tri-Nations?
Absolutely. You only have to look at the results of last year. The Kiwis drew with Australia first up and they lost guys like Matt Utai, Tony Puletua and Joe Galuvao who were forced into operations and after that their team looked different. I don’t think there’s much between the three nations and it’s not out of the realms of possibility that Australia could go over there and not win the Tri Nations. Look at 2003. They won 3-0 in the Ashes but it was a miracle scoreline and they could have lost the series the games were so close.
Is Andrew Johns better than you were?!
He’s the best player I’ve seen to be quite honest. Wally Lewis was the best player I played against but Johns has the goal kicking advantage over Lewis. Both are nine out of tens in all aspects but Johns can win games with his boot. I don’t go back to Clive Churchill, Reg Gasnier and Johnny Raper. I only saw what they did on tape. Johns is the best player I’ve seen in the flesh.
Which other players do you particularly admire in the NRL?
Well obviously there’s Darren Lockyer but I’ve got a huge rap on Nathan Hindmarsh. Whether his team is twenty in front or twenty behind, he stands out. We’ve also got some great young talent coming through. I like the players who play for the full eighty minutes. Interchange changed the fabric of our game and I’m not a fan of forwards averaging about 50 minutes a game. I think it’s a shame. I understand the game is faster but it’s taken away the gladiatorial aspect for me.
Who is your tip for the NRL in 2005?
I’ve got no idea! Brisbane deserve to be favourites but they’re very beatable. If I was putting my money on any team at the moment it’s be St George Illawarra.
How difficult was the transition from player to media pundit? Do you still miss playing?
I don’t miss playing now but I did for a long time. That was probably symptomatic of the fact I didn’t make the decision to retire; the doctors did. I would work on games three or four years after retiring and wish I was playing. The transition was easy because while I was still a contracted player I was injured a fair bit and did media work. I consider myself pretty articulate and I just comment on what I think.
Are you enjoying your consultancy role with New Zealand Warriors?
Very much so. I haven’t done a lot because my weekend commitments are quite time consuming. I thought I’d see them more in Australia but a lot of their away games have been moved back to New Zealand. A lot of the stuff I’ve done has been over the ‘phone. I talk to Stacey Jones a bit passing on tips to him and the coaches Tony Kemp and Ivan Cleary. I’d like to go over there this summer and be much more hands on if possible.
Finally, Peter, Hull are back in the Challenge Cup Final 20 years on from your final.
Yes it’s great isn’t it? Good on them. I really hope they can do it and wish them the very best of luck.