Ady Spencer

This is a merger of a couple of interviews I’ve done with Ady – one with Thirteen in 2005 and one in 2009 with Rugby League World.

How much do you miss your playing days?
Obviously I miss the day to day of being involved in a sporting environment as a player, being paid for keeping fit and playing the game that you love and grew up watching is a dream come true. There’s very little that can compare to being in a team environment in a combative sport like League. I haven’t really felt the same adrenalin buzz since. But to be honest, I had a fairly rough first year as a pro. In my final trial match for the Broncos after graduating from Uni, I shedded my posterior cruciate ligament, so had to have a major cartilage scrape in the off season. Then, after six months out post breaking my collarbone in the 1997 World Club tournament, I came back only to develop a stress fracture in my shin in the pre-season of 1998 and ended up missing the start of that campaign. I never really recovered and probably wasn’t tough enough to carve out a career of any longevity. I definitely don’t miss waking up on a Monday morning feeling like the number 42 bus has run over me.

What were the highs and lows of your career?
The injuries were definitely the lows. To have everything taken out of your hands, to have to sit and watch and not be able to control your destiny is just a shocker. That said, they’re part and parcel of the game. I used to be amazed at how some of our senior players like Peter Gill and Steve Rosolen could just play through the pain barrier. The highs for me came in that first season. We had such a brilliant team spirit. Pre-season that year took place in Queensland and I got to know some great characters. Rooming with Shaun Edwards was an experience and finishing second in the Super League was quite a moment for London Rugby League.

How did your move to London come about?
I was really lucky to be spotted playing in the Rugby League Varsity Match in 1993 in my first year at Cambridge. Nick Halifihi had been incredibly instrumental in the progress that Cambridge Rugby League had made that year, he was playing for the London Crusaders, as they were in those days, in the old Division 2 in the days before Superleague and our Captain Robbie King had organized it so that Nick traveled once a week up to Cambridge to coach us.
Then, come Varsity Match day Nick cajoled Tony ‘Tank’ Gordon, the Crusaders coach into coming to watch the game at the Crusaders home ground, Crystal Palace Sports Ground. I’d played the whole of my year out for Woolston Rovers and had played for the BARLA u19’s side against Australia and France, so I was pretty fit and compared to the rest of the Cambridge and Oxford teams, I was a really experienced league player, so I suppose I just stood out. It was an amazing day and we defeated Oxford by a (still) record margin, 50-16. I kicked 9 goals from 9 attempts, which can’t have hurt.
Tony then invited me down for a trial period with the Crusaders, so I was making my way down from Cambridge twice a week for training with a game at weekends. Nick was a great friend to me during this period and I used to crash over at his place, but the commute was just too much and in the end I decided to just focus on my studies. I’d played 8 games for them as an amateur.
I carried on playing at student level and enjoyed some great games for Cambridge, the Midlands Division side and England Students and formed a friendship with Bev Risman who at the time was the Director of the SRL (Student Rugby League) Once my time at Cambridge was up, Bev had moved on to work for the Broncos on their youth/academy development and he invited me down for a trial in 1996. By this time, Superleague had arrived and the likes of Greg Barwick, Terry Matterson and Kevin Langer were playing for the club and Tony Currie (TC) was the coach. Bev had recommended me to him, and on my trial game for the A team, Kevin played scrum half to my 6 and Ikram Butt was on the wing. And since we were short, TC decided to play his first game for 5 years in the centres. I’ll never forget him trying to mould a £2 gumshield he’d just bought from the local sports shop to his teeth using a boiling kettle in the changing rooms 5 minutes before the kick off! It was hilarious. And fairly intimidating to have a full Australian international playing outside me and assessing on my trial.
A week later, I found myself making my full debut at the Valley, in front of the Sky camera’s against Leeds. It was 35 degrees and at the time, the Broncos had signed a deal with Asics to wear some new, revolutionary breathable material as their kit. Sadly, someone had misplaced mine, so I ended up playing in the old kit, which was as thick as a sheepskin! Anyway, it all went well and we won the match. I remember distinctly being welcomed to Super League by George Mann, who picked me up and dumped me on my backside after I tried to throw him a dummy. The hit was a good one and ended up on Mick ‘the Munch’ Skinners Big Hits video that summer!

Tell us about some of your Broncos teammates.
Matt Salter went on to captain Bristol RU, Giles Thomas is now a mining magnate and Iain Higgins is a sports lawyer with the ICC in Dubai. Shaun Edwards is about to tour as a coach of the Lions. Chris Ryan sells time-shares in Cabo San Luca and Tulsen Tollett is a radio DJ in Ireland! What a diverse and talented bunch. As for Robbie Beazley – not a lot of what I could tell you about him could be put into print….

What are your favourite memories and favourite games?
The first season under TC was pretty special. We did our pre-season camp out in Queensland, in a one-horse, one-bar town called Yepoon, about 30 minutes from Rockhampton. I’ll never forget the journey out there with all the young British lads, Matt Salter, Nick Mardon, Giles Thomas and Paul Terry. We flew from London to Brisbane where we hooked up with the other Queensland based lads for 2 days of fun before the hard work began. We were then bused up to our training camp on the Iwasake resort, just outside Yepoon. It was fairly plush with all the gym facilities and training areas we needed and I remember a real feeling of ‘togetherness’ and belonging. We were there for just over 2 months with a week break for Christmas that I spent in Sydney with some friends. Then we flew home to our new base at the Stoop, Harlequins ground in Twickenham. It was down to earth with a bump, as the weather was awful and I’ll never forget being hammered by Bradford in the Challenge Cup on Grandstand in the rain and mud.
Favourite game for me was the Sky televised match V Warrington at the Stoop, my home town in 1997. I scored a try, had one disallowed by the Video ref and won the players player award (24 bottles of Fosters!) My family had traveled south to watch the match.

Who were the best players you played with?
Peter Gill was without doubt the one who stood out. He was definitely the hardest man I played with and towards the end of his career, he couldn’t train properly at all since his back was so destroyed, so he’d sit on a bike in the gym for four days, then join us for a run through the day before the game. Then he’d play (always 80 minutes) and the next day he couldn’t walk. Nails. He didn’t look big at all, but he was really ‘wiry’, strong as an Ox as well as skilful and he could always create space and make breaks. He was fearless in defence and put in some great hits. Inspirational.
Steve Rosolen was made of similar stuff.
Terry Matterson was a brilliant captain. He wasn’t particularly vocal, but he was a really nice bloke and a smart player and I enjoyed listening to him and learning from him during his time at the club. We definitely missed ‘Box’ a lot when he left.
Obviously it was a pleasure to play with Shaun Edwards – although I was a Warrington kid growing up, I’d always admired Shaun as a player and there I was playing stand off outside him in that first year. Ironically, it was when Shaun joined the club that my move into the forwards started and that led into one of my lowest points at the Broncos (see below). We also had Tulsen Tollet and Josh White as halfbacks, so TC asked me to move into the second row and it was from there that I became an interchange player as I could cover a lot of positions.
On the social front, Russell Bawden is a hilarious man and other notable mentions should go to Robbie Beazley, David Krause and Josh White.

The lowest point? Presumably not being able to play at Wembley 1999?
Strangely enough, no. I’d had bad shin splints during preseason that year, so I hadn’t played much and hadn’t been selected for the semi. I was playing against Halifax in the A Team that day and I remember watching Steele Retchless score that winning try against Cas in the Fax clubhouse at Thrum Hall. I nearly jumped through the roof! So it was a surprise to me that Dan Staines included me in his 17 for the Final. Shaun had broken his thumb and wasn’t expected to make the Final, but he declared himself fit and I was the fall guy. No problem to me, I didn’t really deserve a spot and Shaun had been instrumental in us making the final, so what complaints could I make!
My lowest point was without doubt the damage I did to my collar bone against the Broncos in the World Club Challenge at the Stoop. As I mentioned, TC had earmarked me as a bench player, so I came on after 20 minutes to cover someone in the second row. I packed down for my first scrum, peeled around the back after the scrum split and took the first hit up off the ruck. And who did I run into, but Shane Webcke, Gordon Tallis and Brad Thorne. A 350 Kg muscle sandwich. My collar bone was completely snapped in half, but when I heard the crunch, I assumed that I’d popped my shoulder and that it had gone back into it’s socket. So I played on for 5 minutes, taking another big hit from Tallis. That’s adrenaline for you. The game was televised by Sky and I remember Bill Arthurs and Eddie Hemmings from Sky describing it as a ‘brave’ five minutes. They wouldn’t have used that description if they’d have seen me crying in the changing rooms and demanding that the kit man cut my top off with a pair of scissors (they didn’t want to cut it as my club sponsor had been promised my shirt at the end of the season!) No amount of laughing gas was getting that jersey off me complete that day!

What have you done since?
In 1999 I got into a position working in headhunting in the City. I’ve worked in various such roles since, as well as being the commercial director for an entertainment business. I like to think I’ve developed some great contacts in that time that might one day be useful stakeholders within Rugby League.

What were your thoughts on the recent (2005) Varsity match?
To be honest, I never fail to be amazed by the commitment both sides show to winning the fixture. It’s the be-all and end-all to their seasons. Some people complain that it’s not the best two student sides, so why does it deserve all of the press hype and TV coverage? The simple fact is that the public and the press have a fascination with all things Oxford/Cambridge, so the sport is right to make it a showpiece as it gives us an opportunity to take Rugby League to a market outside of the heartlands. I was amazed at the attendance at the corporate dinner this year at a time when the general economy is in recession.

What are your memories of playing in the fixture?
Some of the fondest memories I have in life. I played in four Rugby League Varsity matches between 1993 and 1996 and was lucky enough to play in the 1994 union Varsity too. That was what led to my 10-month ban from union, having played as an amateur for London Crusaders, and ultimately the removal of the RFU’s archaic rules banning League professionals from their game. That was quite a year.

What exactly happened?
As I mentioned above, I played for the London Crusaders as an amateur in 1993/94. When I stopped traveling to London for training, I decided to give Rugby Union a go at Cambridge and eventually I’d graduated to the University U21’s side and from there, played a few games for the full side.
Then, bizzarely, I found myself on the bench for the 1994 Varsity match at Twickenham in front of 60,000 people, with only a few full games of Union under my belt! Then one of the centres, Glen Harrison, popped his shoulder, so I played for the final 20 minutes. We were 20-0 up when I went on and we scraped a victory 26-21 with Oxford camped on our line for the final 4 minutes so it was pretty intense. As my pals rightly point out, strictly speaking I was the only person on the Cambridge side to actually lose that day as they scored 21 points to our 6 whilst I was on the field!
So there I was, a full blue in Rugby League and Union, and feeling pretty pleased with myself. Then I received a call from someone at the RFL who rightly pointed out that under the RFU’s rules at the time, I shouldn’t have been able to play Union. I had after all taken to the field with League professionals during my stint at the Crusaders and what was different about my case and that of Steve Pilgrim who had been banned years before for having a trial with a League side? The answer was nothing, as the Cambridge v Oxford game was also under the jurisdiction of the RFU!
The RFL asked me if I would mind them approaching the RFU for an explanation. I replied that I had no problems. I had been an avid follower of the political relationship between the two sports, and was actually really intrigued. My only proviso was that the Cambridge Rugby Union team (CURUFC) was not to get into trouble. They hadn’t knowingly played a ‘tainted’ amateur, as nobody goes to play for a RU team (AT THEIR OWN UNIVERSITY!) with their rugby CV in their hand. They knew about my League pedigree, but not the finer details.
Weeks later, after a huge amount of debate in the press, I received a letter from Dudley Wood at the RFU telling me that I was banned for a year from the date of the Varsity, 06/12/94 until 06/12/95. More debate followed in the press and then into the Houses of Parliament. It was an interesting time, I received some great PR personally, but I missed out on a sevens tournament in Singapore and a preseason training camp in Zimbabwe with the CURUFC side which hurt. Steve Cottrell was the captain of the CURUFC club at the time and he was a Law graduate, and he very kindly acted as my advisor throughout this period (I believe that he’s now the legal advisor to the All Blacks). Then after 10 months, in October 1995, the walls came down and the Rugby Union went fully professional. I was fully reinstated. Just in time to play full back for CURUFC against Western Samoa (we won a famous victory!) and make the bench again for the 1995 Varsity match (I didn’t get on this time!)

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