What did you make of Millennium Magic?
To be honest, I’d have happily played on any old park, because I just wanted to get out there and play another Super League match! In terms of the concept, I think it’s great but maybe the timing wasn’t the best for the fans with us being in the middle of a recession and with it coming so soon after Christmas and just before Valentine’s Day. But the players are so focussed that you don’t notice the empty seats – you just get on with your job.
When approaching you, were the Bulls always happy you’d recovered from your broken leg?
Yes, because I played a couple of reserve games for Hull KR. I was 12 months into my rehab and I’ve really been able to hit the ground running here and I’m lucky that the club have welcomed me with open arms.
You hit the big time at 11 – playing at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final curtain raiser!
We got absolutely spanked by Leigh Schools but it was still a great experience. Leeds were in the main final that year and we got to meet all the players and that made me realise that’s what I wanted to go on and become. It was such an exciting build up because we knew for six months we’d be playing and there was a lot of time for things like fundraising. It was as memorable for me as any final I went on to play in.
What was it like to play Super League at the age of 16?
I was lucky to have Dean Bell as an Academy coach because he made us man up early and bred it into us that if we were selected to play first team then it was because we were good enough. I paid a lot of attention to him and he taught me a lot about the mental side of the game – he was a great coach. I didn’t set targets of playing in the first team, or later on internationals, but when it happened, I went into those games with the mentality that I was good enough to be at that level because I’d been picked.
And a year later you were playing in the World Cup against Australia!
It’s weird looking back because I can’t understand now why I wasn’t daunted to be coming up against Wendall Sailor at such a young age! But it wasn’t like I was being asked to do something completely alien, like play football so I just got on with it. I remember getting into a bit of a scuffle with Wendall as well as I tackled him into touch just after he’d released the ball. It was a great experience.
Was it a wrench to miss out on captaining the England Academy on the 2001 tour down under because you were in the Leeds first team?
Yes it was, but it wasn’t Leeds who pulled me out. I was kept back because I’d been chosen to play for England against Wales. Looking back I probably should have gone on the tour because the chance of captaining your country doesn’t come around very often but playing another full international for England was fantastic too.
This year there will be an England Knights team which will be similar to the England A team you played for in 2002. What do you remember of that?
Well, it cost me another tour! One player was to be chosen from our game against the Kiwis to go into the full Great Britain squad and, even though we all thought it would be a forward, it ended up being me that David Waite chose. So I missed out on the England A tour to Fiji and Tonga and didn’t get on the field for Great Britain.
How do you look back on the events of 2003?
With regret. The reasons I [went to prison] … are very embarrassing to me and I can’t apologise enough for what I did. I’m not one to feel sorry for myself, though, and I went on to have the best year of my career in 2004, probably because what happened made me refocus and realise how close I’d come to losing my career. I still think if I’d been a plumber the punishment wouldn’t have been so harsh – we were made an example of I suppose, but I made the mistake of putting myself in that position. You have to be squeaky clean as a pro on and off the field, and it was a good lesson to learn.
2004 was the year it all came together for Leeds. How instrumental was Tony Smith in that?
The first thing he said to us as a squad was “How many games will you win this year?” In answering I think we hedged our bets by saying that if we won one more game than in 2003, we’d have done alright. But he told us that we were good enough to go unbeaten. We didn’t – we lost twice – but he built us up and gave us belief and four or five games into the season, we thought he might be right. It was the year we realised our potential and I still carry things on board that Tony told us, and I swear by them. He broke the game down into simple terms.
You played for Great Britain in 2004 and 2004 – what do you remember of those experiences?
In 2004 I was disappointed not to get in the centres because I’d had the best year of my career and Martin Gleeson had had that long ban, but he came back into the side. The coach wanted me somewhere else and coming off the bench into the second row – in 2005 as well – I tried to have as much impact as I could.
How different are the two positions?
In attack you run similar lines, but without the ball a back-rower does a hell of a lot more.
Do you regret going to rugby union?
No, I don’t. I would have regretted not going and not knowing. I felt stale at Leeds in 2006 and didn’t want to leave for another Super League team. I was young and wanted to try something different and I didn’t fancy Australia. I was doing OK in union, but, as it was well documented at the time, my girlfriend didn’t settle and that affects you. I had to decide whether to stay down there on my own with her back up here or to come back, and that’s what I did. I actually agreed to join Wigan but Maurice Lindsay became ill and sold the club to Ian Lenagan. Nothing had been signed and I think Wigan wanted to cut back in a few areas and the deal didn’t go through. I was disappointed because I really wanted to play for Brian Noble – he’d tried to sign me from the Rhinos when he was at the Bulls, but I wouldn’t have gone straight to Bradford from Leeds. In the end, it worked out well, because Justin Morgan convinced me that Hull KR were a club goung places.
How did you enjoy your time at Rovers?
I loved the place and it was great to play for such a passionate set of fans. I missed a lot of games through injury but I always wanted to be as involved in the club as much as I could and help out as much as possible.
How good can Kris Welham become?
He should be knocking on the England door pretty soon because he’s got all the attributes a top centre needs. He’s got great balance, he’s pretty quick, he reads the game really well in attack and defence and he can score a try out of nothing. But maybe I shouldn’t big up his international chances too much, because I want to play for England again!
Didn’t you put your hand up for Jamaica a couple of years ago?
I did, but I didn’t want to give up my England chances either. Back then I don’t think that was the case but I think it is now. But if I play really well this season for Bradford and don’t get picked for England, then I’ll certainly consider Jamaica.