Phil Clarke, another former Great Britain captain, was kind enough to do this interview for Thirteen in 2005. I may have criticised Sky a couple of times when I edited Rugby League World but I remain a big fan of Clarke’s, and the unique style he brings to the punditry table.
Phil, you must look back on your career with a lot of pride. What are the memories you particularly cherish?
Believe it or not, my fondest memories are from when I played in the Wigan A Team (or second team). We used to play all of our games on a Friday night, and with most of the team being quite young, the camaraderie and team spirit was great. We didn’t really have the pressure that exists at first-team level, and we always used to have a great laugh. I suppose that we were all competing for the chance of a first team place, but the friendships that I formed are still with me. I still hang out with Andy Farrell, Mick Cassidy, Ged Byrne and Mike Forshaw – players who I spent some memorable Friday nights with.
A more serious look back at my career would highlight a 10-10 draw at Headingley when I’d just get into the first team. I think that Steve Hampson had been sent off, so we did well to earn a replay (it was a Regal Trophy match). The 1993 Test Series against New Zealand was memorable and of course the [Wigan World Club Challenge] win in Brisbane in 1994.
Do you have any career regrets?
Perhaps that I didn’t enjoy my career more. Maybe I was too serious, and too critical of my own performances.
You played 12 games for Easts in 1995 and 1996. How hard was the transition, if at all? How did you feel about your form in those games?
I’ll never forget the first training session at the Roosters. We started with a few handling drills to warm up. I couldn’t believe the speed and intensity with which we’d started to practice. The pressure was such that they made you feel as though you’d be shot if you dropped the ball.
I don’t particularly remember too much about all of my playing career. Former team-mates often remind me of things that went on. However, I do remember one game in 1995 when we (currently lying mid-table) went to Manly (top of the table) and managed to win. Phil Gould, our coach, used to lead the singing in the dressing room after we’d won. He also drove the team bus back across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with the team still singing. Money couldn’t buy that feeling of the underdog winning. It was one of the reasons why I left Wigan and chose the Roosters.
Why do you think so few British players are prepared to make the move?
Probably because they would earn less money in a career that is already short enough. Not that many clubs in Australia actually want to pay for players from the UK. They’d prefer to develop their own youngsters.
How do you think Mark Edmondson and Brian Carney will perform out there in 2006?
I think that they are the type of players who will be more valued in Australia than the UK. They both have great speed and that will help them. In addition, they are both intelligent people, which will help when it comes to learning and improving, which I’m sure that they’ll do over there.
Who were the best players you played with and against?
I was very lucky to play in a Wigan team that had so many great players. Shaun Edwards had a determination and will to win that you rarely come across. Martin Offiah had both speed and a game awareness that I’ve never seen in any other player. Jonathan Davies just had pure rugby running through his veins, and was very tough. Andy Platt was a great example to many at Wigan. He used to work hard to maximise his talent. But without a doubt the best player that I’ve ever played with was Ellery Hanley.
From an opposing view, I suppose that Wendell Sailor was the hardest player that I ever tried to stop. The hardest tackle that I ever made was one on Kevin Tamati when I was only 16. He was coming to the end of his career and I’d only ever been used to tackling people my own age. It was like hitting a brick wall when I hit him and I soon realised that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.
Last month, Peter Sterling told us that he missed playing for a number of years and he thinks that was symptomatic of the fact that his career was curtailed by injury, like yours. Was that the same with you? Do you still miss playing and the day to day aspects of being involved with a club?
I have never really missed playing. I am extremely fortunate to have broken a bone in my neck and made a full recovery. The damage I sustained was at C4 in my neck and the patients around me in the Spinal Injury Ward were not as lucky as me. The fact that I can’t play rugby is irrelevant. The Doctor of the Roosters told me that I win the lottery every morning when I throw back the duvet and climb out of bed. I’m that lucky.
Initially you miss the humour and banter that takes place at training, but your life moves on and you enter another chapter.
I am now a Trustee of the Rugby League’s Benevolent Fund which is aiming to support players who have suffered serious spinal injuries. We’ve only just formed, but I’m sure that we’ll be able to provide some help to people less fortunate than myself.
Back in 1998 I had a go at being a Chief Executive of the Wigan Warriors, but fortunately Dave Whelan sacked me. It was far different to playing and much less fun. We did quite well that year, losing at Wembley to Sheffield and winning the Grand Final.
And like Sterling, you’ve made a successful move into television. How did that come about? Did you anticipate it would be something you would be so natural with?
The Roosters are a great club on and off the field. Their help and support for me after my neck injury was superb. I’ll never forget the Chairman, Nick Politis, coming to visit me on Monday morning in hospital. He sat next to me and just read me the morning papers. At that time it wasn’t known how bad my injury was going to be, and yet he was there for me.
A few months later then club helped me to get a job at the new pay-TV station in Australia called Optus. I started there as a sideline commentator and did some studio work for them. It was great to get some experience before I returned to the UK, and I owe the Roosters for that opportunity.
In my experience you don’t just play for the Roosters, you actually become a member of the Roosters family. If you do the right thing by them, they’ll always do whatever they can to help you for the rest of your life. To me, they are everything that a rugby club should be.