In December 2007 I interviewed Brian Noble, then the coach of Wigan, about his life in the game for Rugby League World as part of our Big Interview series.
FIVE Grand Finals in five years as coach of Bradford Bulls – not a bad record
Three World Club Challenge victories were also secured in 2002, 2004 and 2006 as well as a Challenge Cup success in 2003 against Leeds Rhinos in a belting game at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium .
Brian Noble had already done enough to be regarded as the finest coach of the Super League era before he turned up at Wigan and kept the fallen giants in Super League in 2006 against the expectation of most.
Then, in 2007, having suffered yet another points deduction for accountancy misdemeanours, Wigan reached the play-offs, for the first time since 2004, and got to within one game of what would have been a truly remarkable Grand Final appearance.
Rugby League World secured an hour of Noble’s time at their impressive Orrell training facility where we unravelled his life in Rugby League.
“Trevor Foster took me to play for Bradford Police Boys’ club when I was a kid,” recalled Noble. “It was a youth club in Manningham and I think most kids my age went down there just to stay out of trouble.
“I ended up in the Bradford schools’ team and Gordon Jones, the chief scout at Bradford Northern, took me there in 1977.
“I made my Northern debut in 1978 at Fartown against Huddersfield and we had some well known names in our team like Jimmy Thompson, Jeff Grayshon, Len Casey and the legendary Neil Fox in the back row.
“Modern psychologists might call it bullying, but younger players were treated a bit differently by the senior players compared to now. Hang your clothes on the wrong peg and they’d end up in the bath and you’d have to do a lot of errands but I think it’s called a pecking order. There were some genuine silverbacks in that team and you had to earn your stripes and prove your worth.
“We had a tough team at Bradford and we were competing in the ’80s with a Wigan team who bought up all the stars. They took Ellery Hanley and Kelvin Skerrett from the Bradford environment but we always managed to compete. I’ve got six or seven Yorkshire Cup final medals, two or three John Player medals and three Championship medals so there were plenty of good times there.
“The biggest disappointment was losing three or four Challenge Cup semi-finals, including 1983 at Headingley, famous for Ellery’s incredible try up the touchline. Featherstone beat us and went on to win the cup.”
A year earlier, Noble’s efforts for Bradford resulted in a Great Britain call-up for the third Test with the touring Australians, otherwise knows as the Invincibles – a wholly justified tag as they swept all before them with a series of groundbreaking displays. Within two years, the Northern hooker had played 11 times for Great Britain and had become our youngest touring captain, when he led a young Lions side to the Southern Hemisphere for a total of seven Tests against Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
“I’d captained the team before that tour against France earlier in the year,” remembers Noble.
“I made my GB debut in the last Test of 1982 at Headingley. There was no pressure because the series was gone and we were looking to blood a few youngsters so myself and Mike O’Neill were brought in. It was close for 40 or 50 minutes, as it tended to be then, but the Kangaroos pulled away.
“It was a great experience and I loved it because every young player should aspire to play for their country.
“Wayne Pearce was iconic in relation to his lifestyle and athleticism. He broke the mould in Australia in that regard. Then there was Ray Price – Mr Perpetual Motion – and Mal Meninga, Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny. Wally Lewis was only on the bench remember!
“1982 was the wake-up call. We had to improve after that and we did. We might not have had that series win but, in the main, we are competitive.
“When the 1984 tour came around, Trevor Skerrett pulled out and then Len Casey pulled out. Frank Myler gave me captaincy which was a great honour and it was a pretty young team that went out there. I was extremely proud of what we achieved.”
With a side crammed with future stars, Noble’s men lost the three Ashes Tests but restored some pride to the British game after the ignominy of the 1982 thrashings.
“I remember the headline in Rugby League Week after the first Ashes Test. It said something like, “Bruising Battle – Test Matches are Back!”, because it was on the back of the 1982 Ashes when they’d flogged us all over the place. But we competed in 1984 although we didn’t come away with a win.
“The disappointing thing was that we went to New Zealand and lost 3-0 which was a shock to us but they were on a resurgence.
“Frank picked a team, the nucleus of which would be around for a long time. There was Joe Lydon, Ellery Hanley, Kevin Beardmore, David Hobbs, Andy Gregory, Tony Myler, Lee Crooks, Andy Goodway, Garry Schofield etc. They all went on to become iconic players and form the nucleus of the Great Britain side for a long time. Those blokes were all in their early-20s.
On his return to Britain, Noble told Open Rugby magazine, “I think the record of losing all the Tests (to Australia and New Zealand) didn’t really do justice to all the effort the team put in. But the vital thing is, if our game doesn’t try and learn the lessons from this tour, it’s going to be a long hard road ahead.”
Great Britain’s solitary win came against Papua New Guinea, where two tries from Des Drummond helped the side to a 38-20 win.
“Going there was an experience I wouldn’t have missed,” Noble told Open Rugby. “It’s an unbelievable place and the people’s enthusiasm for Rugby League is fantastic. The crowd scenes are hard to describe. The ground at Mount Hagen was packed and there were thousands of people outside and on rooftops and in trees.”
Noble impressed many on the tour. Not just with his playing skills, but his leadership qualities and his off-field work brought him praise from just about everywhere. It led to the code’s finest coach, Jack Gibson, taking him to Cronulla.
“When I got there, I didn’t know what to expect. Jack was iconic in the Australian game and I soon found out why.
“I remember walking around with Kurt and Dane Sorensen at one practice session and I hadn’t had a first team game at that stage because I was slightly injured when I got there and I heard this ’56! 56!’. I used to wear a New York Giants shirt with that number on it but I had no idea he was talking to me until Kurt said, ‘hey Pommy, he wants you.’
“‘I’ve got a job for you,’ said Jack. And that job was playing against Norths at the weekend!
“I learned a lot at Cronulla and Ron Massey helped me out a lot.
“Cronulla have a tradition of Englishmen with many having played for them. They’re all up there on the wall and it was a great club to be at. I enjoyed my time there.”
In a brief stay, Noble played only seven times for Cronulla, scoring one try.
“I remember the try. It was against Eastern Suburbs and the big winger Dean Carney gave me the ball and I got it down under the sticks. I played seven games with a few more in the reserve grade and then I broke a bone in my back.
“It was quite sobering to be the GB captain but realising that you still had to be playing to a certain standard to play in the Winfield Cup but the pleasing thing for me was that Jack wanted me to stay for a few years. But I decided to come back to Bradford.”
Moving into coaching
You might think it was inevitable that Noble would end up a coach but, like most players, he admits that nothing was further from his mind during his playing days.
“At 23, you don’t think about it. On the GB tour, I had to do more than just play and captain. I had to do other things I shouldn’t have had to do but I did them and further down the track, I thought I might have a dig at this coaching business. I didn’t think it could be that hard! How wrong can you be?” he laughs.
The coaching journey began at Wakefield after his playing days at Odsal but a quirk of fate soon saw him back at Bradford, a club that were embarking on a massive image overhaul which saw them adapt to the summer game – on and off the field – in spectacular fashion. The marketing men took care of transforming Odsal from the worst winter venue into the place to be in summer, while a team of coaches including Noble, working under Australian coaching guru Brian Smith, created a dynasty that brought a glut of success.
“I had a bad knee but I creaking a bit on the birth certificate rule too. I was 35 and had a bruised birth certificate!
“I went to Wakefield as assistant coach to David Hobbs but ended up playing 11 or 12 games really badly on one leg! I didn’t want to play but it was a difficult season and they talked me into it.
“It didn’t work out for Dave there and he got the bullet. He was a personal friend of mine so I left too.
“I wanted to get into coaching and I’d agreed to go to Halifax with Steve Simms as one of his part-time assistants. Anyway, I went back to Bradford to get my old boots, believe it or not, and I bumped into Matthew Elliott who asked me what I was doing. I told him about Halifax but he asked me to coach at Bradford so I rang up Steve to apologise and tell him I wouldn’t be coming.
“Matthew was in temporary charge until Brian Smith came over from St George. I was lucky (to join Bradford).
“Chris Caisley, Brian Smith and Peter Deakin were the driving forces behind the resurgence at the club. Matthew was great for me personally and as a mentor.
“He had the good grace to be patient with me and knock some edges off me. I had to put my ego in the back pocket and take five years to learn about coaching.
“In my first year of coaching they gave me two teams to coach – the 21s and the 18s – and I nearly sunk. I’m sure they were finding out whether I could sink or swim. In my last four years before I became head coach, I coached the 21s.
“I coached Leon Pryce, Jamie Peacock, Stuart Fielden, Warren Jowitt, Paul Deacon, Rob Parker, Stuart Reardon, Karl Pryce and Lee Radford in the Academys and every week I was out watching junior games to pick out the best kids.
“Mick Potter came in to coach one of the Academy sides too. We always had two assistants at Bradford and there’s two here at Wigan. When you employ someone on your coaching staff, you want them to go on to be a head coach. The Bradford stable has produced some good head coaches and I’m as proud of the people that I’ve employed who have gone on to become head coaches as anything else.
“Bradford had a good playing staff and you look at the players to see who can further their careers in whatever capacity after they finish playing.”
Smith only stayed for just over one year but took the club to Wembley and into third place in the inaugural Super League season. Elliott took over for four years and delivered the Super League and the Challenge Cup before heading to Canberra at the end of the 2000 season. Noble got his dream job.
“I’m sure it was a big decision for Chris Caisley and the board to make. They made me sweat for a few weeks but I’m told there was no-one else but me (in the frame).
“I remember being the last man standing in one regard at the time. John Kear had just got the bullet at the Huddersfield-Sheffield amalgamation so I was the only English bloke left coaching in Super League. I felt a huge responsibility there in not failing.
“I heard people saying that I was the cheap option and I was determined to prove them wrong and do well with the team. I was lucky that I had some good pros I could rely on – those silverbacks. We had a talented team.”
The Quiet Achievers
Noble led the team to two finals in 2001. Firstly, at Twickenham, in a Challenge Cup final defeat to St Helens and then at Old Trafford, when the Bulls hammered Wigan 37-6 in the Grand Final with Michael withers scoring a hat-trick of tries in a blistering first half.
“I thought we were going to blow Saints out of the water and I learned a huge lesson that day,” said Noble. “Our preparation was great, everything was great but they just weren’t relaxed. I keep a picture at home of the players in the tunnel and they’re all very tense, serious and determined but there was probably a lack of relaxation compared to Saints who were bouncing balls and smiling. They were mentally ready and we weren’t. We came close, losing 13-6 and it rained all day at Twickenham. I fell out with a couple of players on the pitch. I remember Jimmy Lowes giving me a gesture wanting to know why I was taking him off and I had all sorts whizzing around my head.
“But we were ready for the Grand Final later that year. Nobody knew that we would win like that but I knew, for a fact, that they were ready to play. I couldn’t get them off the Old Trafford entertainment stage. They were playing cards an hour before kick-off when they should have been getting ready!
“We were 20-odd points up after 20 minutes and I was thinking, ‘how good’s this?’
“We had some great pros in that team. Henry Paul was outstanding in his last year and he should have won the Man of Steel. Maybe it was a political decision that stopped him because he was going to rugby union.
“Then there was Brian McDermott, James Lowes, Tevita Vaikona on top of his game, Scott Naylor playing really well and Graham Mackay.”
I put it to Noble that one of the reasons for the Bulls’ success was that they had more than their fair share of underrated and understated quiet achievers, offering McDermott as the primary example.
“Not everyone can be a superstar,” he agrees. “You need your quiet achievers who do it week in and week out. Every year I was there, we were written off at some stage as no-hopers but the will and attitude of some of those players was superb. We always had a chance.
“Brian was my iconic silverback and always delivered. Daniel Gartner was outstanding over a number of years but people said he was past his best. You have to find players like that – what I call rugby players. They had the nous to get you through games when things were sticky.”
The following year was trophyless for the Bulls, as Sean Long’s 80th minute drop goal broke their hearts at Old Trafford. Noble describes it as “emotionally crap” and still believes that his side should have won but blew it, although they more than made up for it with by completing the League and Cup double in 2003, while in 2005, he produced his finest hour as a coach, taking the Bulls from an embarrassing mid-season slump to Grand Final glory with 12 straight wins. They remain the only side to have won the Super League crown from third place.
“That Challenge Cup final in 2003 was a great win for us. It was a tough game and a real arm-wrestle. I missed the final whistle because I was stuck in the stadium lift!
“It was a special occasion but the 2005 team was a special team.
“We were hammered by St Helens in June and there were calls for my head – I was going to the gallows! We still lost a few more but the turning point was a defeat to Wakefield in July.
“We had a clear-the-air meeting. Some of these meetings are more pivotal than others and some of the players had been lacking some of the Bradford principles like never giving in and sticking together. We needed our better players back like Les and Shontayne but we had a great meeting that morning.
“There were a lot of players leaving the club and that can be a distraction but we got it all out on the table. The salary cap was biting with young players deserving an upgrade but Chris Caisley got it all sorted out and we committed to each other that we were going to win games.
“We got better and better, tougher and tougher. A couple of teams came close to beating us but we had the momentum and we just kept winning. It was ‘boot at the throat’ mentality and we just performed magnificently. We knew the higher up the table we finished, we could shake it up even though it’s a tough ask if you finish outside the top two.
“The club were magnificently supportive and it’s a lesson for any administration. There are reasons why you have adversity and fans are allowed to whinge but winning that Grand Final was the most satisfying. It’s about the players. I conduct the orchestra but they’re the ones playing the music and writing the tunes.”
The Wigan Job
But within six months, Nobby had moved on, although not before delivering his third World Club Championship as his side, inspired by Stuart Fielden, hammered Wests Tigers. Crisis club Wigan had sacked Ian Millward and links with Noble were initially laughed off by all and sundry. But, incredibly, it came to fruition and Lindsay enticed the Great Britain coach to the JJB Stadium with the club staring the ghastly prospect of relegation in the face.
“It was a hugely difficult decision,” said Noble.
“In hindsight, a couple of years down the track, it’s probably been the best thing for both Bradford and myself. Whether the story of how it actually happened ever comes out is for all of us to decide in the future. I made my mind up to leave because of certain circumstances and I always envisaged that Steve McNamara would take over from me.
“Whatever happened and whatever didn’t happen, I was granted permission to speak to Maurice Lindsay at Wigan. I looked at the Wigan situation and thought, ‘they’re in a bit of strife here’ and it was probably the challenge I needed.
“I knew the quality of some of the players at Wigan but they were just under-performing. Belief was an issue for the Wigan team when I arrived here in 2006. Some of the things that were said were just rhetoric.
“I told Mr Lindsay that there’s a chance we’d go backwards before we went forwards but he told me we couldn’t do that! We won our first game, spanking Huddersfield but then we lost six but the turning point came when we beat Catalans at the JJB. We kicked on from there and the confidence grew and grew. I even thought we’d make the top six but we just missed out.
“Expectation is huge in the Wigan area because of the success in the ’80s and ’90s which is unparalled in world sport. The fans have been unbelievable here, unbelievable. You can never guarantee success in the modern era but the clubs who do well have a stable environment and I want to achieve that here. Living your life in a soap-opera becomes difficult.”
2007 wasn’t quite as rocky as the year before had been as the side’s superb play-off performances put them within one game from a remarkable Old Trafford appearance, with the imperious Trent Barrett pulling the strings.
But on the flip side, there were two home defeats to Hull KR, a Challenge Cup semi-final humiliation against Catalans Dragons and four points lopped off for yet more salary cap indescretions.
“If you look at the season as a whole, we had a terrific season,” Noble says.
“Without the salary cap penalty, we would have finished fourth and we rattled some sides in the play-offs.”
But how does Noble look back on the defeat to Potter’s Dragons?
“I knew they could beat us,” he states, whereas the rest of the town were under the misapprehension that the Warriors had a bye to the final.
“We’d had close games with them in the past and we certainly blew it that day. The start was shocking and we just couldn’t get back into it, although we almost did.
“The bounce of the ball was crazy. The kick that beat Pat Richards was a freak, Shane Warne would have been proud of the way that one turned. They scored four tries from kicks.”
Noble wasn’t helped by the media and fans convincing themselves that Wigan were destined to play in the first Cup Final back at Wembley, given the club’s affinity with our national stadium.
“I think some of the senior players fell for that sort of talk as well as the younger ones.
“You fret as a coach. You can tell them and tell them but unless they buy into it, you’re a goner and there’s no doubt that over-confidence set in that day.
“If you’re off your game in this competition, you’ll lose. The fans need to recognise that there are no gimmies out there. In 2001 I could rest a few players in certain games but you do that at your peril now.”
As for 2008, Noble is more than happy to see few people tipping his side for silverware although he is delighted with the club’s new signings; Andy Coley, Richie Mathers, George Carmont and Karl Pryce.
“Our acquisitions are great. It’s no secret that we were at the back of the queue in recruiting because of the takeover and we had to be meticulous. I didn’t want to bring journeymen in. I wanted to sign players who would bring something to the club with the potential to be very special.
“I’ve given my projections to Mr Lenagan and Joe Lydon as to where I think we’ll be and what I think we’ll need over the next few years. It’s still a work in progress and we need to be sensible with our hopes and aspirations. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t want to win anything.
“I’m a ferocious believer in wanting to win something every year.”
THE GB COACH
Brian Noble coached Great Britain for three Tri-Nations tournaments, 2004, 2005 and 2006, having been understudy to David Waite for the three years prior to that.
In his first campaign, we topped the group standings with three straight wins but were hammered in the final. In the latter two, there was one extremely impressive win in each but we failed to reach the final.
He was replaced as national coach by Tony Smith, whose side recently beat a New Zealand side, hit by injuries, with a series whitewash.
Nervously, I put it to Noble that the change of coach precipitated the upturn in our fortunes.
“That’s rubbish,” he snaps. “Great Britain has been a work in progress since David Waite’s tenure.
“I’m really delighted with what Great Britain achieved this year and I hope they carry on winning things because I’m a proud Englishman. I’m pleased for Smithy and I ‘phone him regularly offering him help if he wants it.
“We were really professional in what we did this year and I’m proud of what Tony achieved but it’s a folly to suggest it happened over night.”
While Great Britain won their first Test series in 14 years, there was a feeling that the three wins were slightly underwhelming, coming as they did against such a crisis-torn Kiwi team. Despite the immense challenge of a Tri-Nations tournament, Noble picked up five Test wins including our first in Australia since 1992.
“I’m extremely proud of what we achieved in three years. The Tri-Nations is the toughest challenge in world sport bar none and there are issues that have to be sorted out when it comes back.
“You’ve got to give Great Britain a week off. Speak to Australia and New Zealand and they can’t imagine not having a week off.”
OPEN RUGBY INTERVIEW & GREAT PLAYERS
I show Noble a question-and-answer interview he did for the September 1983 issue of Open Rugby.
“My weight’s gone up for a start!
“My musical tastes have changed over the years but I still like lemon meringue pie and a steak every now and again.
“I did meet Daley Thompson. It was in Lanzarote at one of our training camps with Bradford although we didn’t chat for long.
“Mick McGowan was a real influence on me though. He was the Colts team coach and gave me a lot of discipline in life and as a footballer, which helped me along the way.
“I don’t have that many superstitions. I don’t have to walk out behind the number 8 anymore!
“As for my favourite player, you’ve got to admire the genius of Ellery Hanley. His record speaks for itself. He was an iconic figure in the game and he conquered the Australian game as well. You have to be world class to do that.
“Ellery’s history speaks for itself. Mentally he was very tough and physically he was very talented. He scored amazing tries but look at his defence too. He was an awesome defender when he wanted to be and his work ethic was terrific.
“Then there’s Tony Myler, the outstanding stand-off. There’s Kenny and Lewis but I always threw the Tony Myler argument in there and if he’s stayed healthy, he’d have been one of the world’s best.
“I played with Tony in the Under-19s and Under 24s for Great Britain and then for the full Test side when he was healthy. And, obviously, I played against and knew what a talent he was. He had everything a stand-off needed – a long stride, good pace, a good pass, a good kicking game and he was tough and he had a front rower’s mentality. He was a bloke you wanted on your team.
“In the early ’80s, he was part of a great Widnes side. They had Gregory, Sorensen and all the great players they brought in from south Wales. I once had the personal challenge of taking on Jonathan Davies. ‘Don’t worry, just send him back inside,’ I was told. He scored four tries! We had to change the gameplan real quick because I was an embarrassment that night. He beat me on both sides and over the top of me.”
“I’m a huge believer, like anyone else, in potential but there has to come a time when you convert that potential and that’s what we’re about. Because of the size of our squad, we’re reliant on these young people coming through and we’re not phased by that at all because there are some good young people here but if they get an opportunity they have to take it and play by the same rules and regulations as a 38-year-old would play by. If they’re playing well enough, they stay in the team.
“I don’t want them to be one-year syndromes.
“Darrell Goulding’s been given the number three jersey and it’s up to him to keep it. He’s shown in bit parts what he can do and I like what he does with the ball. He’s been challenging himself in the off-season in relation to how we want him physically. He’s a talented kid but we have to convert that potential into a player and that’s what we’re about.
“He deserves the opportunity to play more games. We saw in the games that he played last season that he converted his potential and he showed that he’s a tough kid. I’ve high hopes and aspirations for him.
“But I get sick of hearing, nationally, about talent and potential. They’ve got to play and the only way you find out if they can is to put them in at the highest level.
“I’ve seen a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds in my time have a good season but then suffer from second season syndrome. Some kids give up if they don’t make it as quickly as they want to and some systems give up on them but we didn’t do that at Bradford and we won’t do that here.
“My experience in development – and I’ve got a pretty good track record in converting players to first teamers and international – is that they have to come into a strong team. Young people get caught out a little more because of their newness
WIGAN’S NEW BOYS
“Richie Mathers is a super acquisition for the club. He had a blinder for Leeds in the 2004 Grand Final when they beat us. We’ve stolen him and he’ll be great for us this year. He’s a super player and a super person. I’ve known him since he was 15, playing with my son at Milford. I know how inquisitive he is about the game, always asking questions and being a pest! I know how meticulous he is and he’s matured as a person since his time in Australia. I’m excited about what he’ll do here.”
“George Carmont has played for Newcaslte Knights and Samoa. He played three years in the NRL so he can’t be a bad player. He’s an outstanding individual and I think he’ll be one of those quiet achievers for us week in and week out. Most people will remember him for his great ponytail! He’s a solid player and I like what he does. He runs a good line and he’ll surprise a lot of people.”
“Andy Coley will kick on and become a super player for us. I might not have given him a game in the 2006 Tri-Nations but I didn’t quite give Rob Burrow a game either but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have high hopes for them both.”
“Karl Pryce is a player who I saw progress through the ranks at Bradford Bulls. He played a huge part in the Club’s Academy success in 2004 and then made an impact in the first team. He has the attributes of both pace and power, he knows where the try line is and can play a number of positions in the back line. He is a really exciting prospect for the Wigan club.”
Nobby’s coaching tips:
I didn’t ask Noble for coaching tips but, during the course of our chat, he offered the following coaching gems:
1. I’m a firm believer in stability. My previous employment at Bradford was built around stability. You adapt and change every year because you have to but small incremental changes are the way forward.
2. We want to have some fun as well. I’m conscious of how important it is and we have a lot of fun here. I’m ultra-protective of the players but it’s important that successful environments enjoy themselves.
3. Adversity gets you through the other side better at anything. I know I’m a better bloke for some of the things that I’ve gone through at Wigan and Bradford when it’s been tough. You’ve got to have good people in your joint to turn things around and I firmly believe that.
4. Lanzarote (Wigan’s pre-season training camp) makes or breaks our season. We need to come away from there having answered a lot of questions, physically, tactically and technically.
5. The modern era has created a situation where if you don’t get up to speed with your body and your athleticism then you’re out the joint – there’s less pints of Guinness involved now! You have to complement that with people who have certain talents. That’s the art of coaching. You’ve got to balance what you need in your team.
6. When you employ someone on your coaching staff, you want them to go on to be a head coach.
7. Not everyone can be a superstar. You need your quiet achievers who do it week in and week out.
8. Sometimes the performance doesn’t represent how you’ve practiced. Sometimes we’ve trained poorly and then produced the best performance of the season.
9. Sometimes it’s not about tactics and technique, it’s about finding a way to win.
10. You have to develop a skin in this business otherwise you’d be a gibbering wreck with all the criticism that’s thrown at coaches.