Phil McKenzie is another of the glorious mid-’nineties Workington side that I have had the pleasure of interviewing, this time for Rugby League World’s ‘Blast From The Past’ series. McKenzie was hugely instrumental in Town’s rise through the divisions, and I could have happily used up the whole page talking about his days playing for my favourite club! But I had to be professional and recognise that he had done plenty else in a great career, such as winning domestic and world titles with Widnes and coming so close to playing for Great Britain – only politics and injury prevented him from doing do.
Do you feel cheated that you never got the chance to play for Great Britain?
I do. The biggest disappointment was that it was the Rugby League who came to me and asked me to make myself available. But it wasn’t just a residency thing; my dad’s from Glasgow. Even so, I had to wait five years, which I did and the first game I was available for was the Wembley Test against the Aussies in 1990. But there was a coach and assistant coach who didn’t want it to happen. They eventually relented due to the pressure they were under and I got picked for a squad to play France but did my knee in.
Tell us about your career in Australia.
I played for Illawarra in the Winfield Cup in 1982 and 1983. I started off in the President’s Cup that year and when that competition finished, I was drafted into the main squad. I started in third grade, then second grade then sat on the bench for the first-grade side against Cronulla all within the space of three weeks. But unfortunately Kurt Sorensen’s brother, Dane, fell on me and twisted my knee, which was the downfall of my knee which I’m still having problems now. I was there for three years but fell out with Brian Smith and felt I needed a move. I moved to Picton Magpies in the Group Six competition where I got the player of the year and we won the grand final. Pete Mulholland watched me play in a game and asked me if I’d like to try England and I ended up at Rochdale in September 1985.
What do you remember of your days at Rochdale?
Long time ago mate! I remember turning up on a cold, grey Manchester morning with Greg Austin. We went straight to the athletics ground which wasn’t the most luxurious place to say the least! But straight from training that night, we knew we’d made the right decision. There was a great bunch of lads there and a very good team – ex-internationals and potentials. There were Mike Kuiti and Phil Bancroft, a couple of New Zealanders who joined us. There was also Brian Dunn, who’d played at Wembley for Wigan a few months earlier and Ian Duane and Dave Wood, two other very good players.
How did your move to Widnes come about?
I’d actually signed another contract with Rochdale but there was a whisper that Dougie [Laughton] and his entourage had come to watch a game. They made enquiries about taking my contract over and they bought it out. I couldn’t have made a better move really.
Can you believe it’s 20 years since you won beat Canberra Raiders?
It makes me feel real old! That was the pinnacle of my rugby career, that particular night. Winning two championships was massive but for a one-off, the Canberra game is the highlight. The main thing I remember is the first 20 minutes, when we were behind the goalposts thinking we’d get battered. Then a stroke of genius from Tony Myler got us down their end of the park. Paul Hulme scored and we got on a roll. I put Martin [Offiah] in for a try just before half time and Mal Meninga got injured. We ran rampant in the second half and got too many points ahead of them.
What was it like playing with Offiah and Jonathan Davies after they switched codes?
I can remember Martin being timid and shy which he soon snapped out of! The transformation was amazing. Jonathan is a real gentleman and a pleasure to know. He took everything in his stride and nothing fazed him. Dougie blooded him nicely and made the transition as easy as he could for both of them.
Why did you leave Widnes?
It was a strange situation. There was a big team meeting at Widnes and Jim Mills said to the players that things weren’t good financially. They asked everyone to take a 50-percent pay cut. After the meeting he told me that Workington wanted me on loan and that it would really help the club if I went. Widnes couldn’t even guarantee I’d be paid the next month. When I spoke to Peter Walsh, the Workington coach, and realised the plans he had I was happy to go for it. I was studying at Liverpool Uni at the chance so becoming part-time for a third division club was a good move for me. Unfortunately for me, but not for Workington, they went from division three to Super League in three years, so I wasn’t part-time anymore!
What were the highlights of your time there?
I won two medals and got my degree in the space of a month, in 1994. We won the title and then the Premiership final against London at Old Trafford. We did really well in division one as well, finishing ninth out of 16 and we picked up some great wins over teams like Bradford and Halifax. We pushed the likes of Leeds and St Helens really close too. But my life was moving in a different direction after that with me wanting to become a physio and my body wasn’t so keen on full-time, top-flight Rugby League anymore! The club struggled after the 1994-95 season with a lot of good players leaving and they couldn’t replace them. But the good times were brilliant and it was a great move for me to have made.