‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Wigan’s Michael Withers in 2007. Withers is now retired from the game.
What’s your injury situation Michael?
I should be back in a couple of weeks. The Cardiff weekend is too soon but I might be fit for the Challenge Cup game with Leeds. I’m back in the gym but I’m not running yet.
Are you enjoying your time at Wigan?
Yes, it’s a great club to be at. We’ve got a new training complex here and as a team, we may have been inconsistent for a bit but it takes time for important combinations to gel. We’ve shown that we can be a very good team but we’ve also been a bit ordinary at times. We’re confident we’re putting that right though.
Do you feel aggrieved that you’ve been painted as the bad guy in the Chris Ashton situation in that your signing has hastened his departure?
Not really. Chris and I get on well and I haven’t really heard what people have been saying because it doesn’t interest me. I didn’t even know where I’d be playing when I signed for Wigan and Chris’s decision has got nothing to do with me at all. He’s just looking after himself and I think we both add things to the team that maybe the other doesn’t.
What do you remember about your early days in the game?
I got into the game through my dad who was the local junior coach at Under-7s level and he got me involved as a 4-year-old. Balmain was the club I played for in Australia but I initially didn’t make the cut at Penrith. I trialled in the 17s for the Tigers, had a pretty successful year and it went from there. Then we won the Jersey Flegg comp and I ended up playing for the Australian Schoolboys alongside Brett Kimmorley. I got into Balmain’s first-grade and that’s when the Super League war was raging. I was 17 or 18 and I turned up one day and was handed $20,000! That bought me my first car.
How did the move to England come about?
I’d finished up with Balmain and was talking to Manly. I went to meet Frank Stanton but he’d got held up and I bumped into Matt Elliott who had been a selector for that Schoolboys side. My manager ‘phoned me later that day telling me that Matt wanted to take me to Bradford. I didn’t know anything about Bradford but Matt told me about the place. Matt, and Brian Smith before him, had done a lot at the club and it was a great place to be. I came over with Nick Zisti who was the higher profile signing that year and that took a bit of pressure off me. I think people wondered who I was!
Does the 1999 Grand Final loss to St Helens still get to you given that you probably should have won the game?
Not really. Things happen in games but, for me, it was my first appearance in a match like that and I’ve got a lot of good memories from it even though we lost. There were some great games that year and some awesome crowds, especially in a few games against Leeds. Super League was buzzing and it was great to be a part of.
2000 saw you win the Challenge Cup which was the first of a big trophy haul for you at the club.
Yeah, I remember wondering if the game would go ahead because of all the flooding but some unbelievable work went on to get the game on. We were confident before the game because things had been going so well for us in Super League but, as for the game itself, I don’t remember a lot apart from us holding on at the end because Leeds were coming back at.
You then lined up for Ireland in the 2000 World Cup. Tell us about that.
That was a fantastic time and the highlight of my career. We had some great blokes like Luke Ricketson, Kevin Campion, Barrie McDermott, Terry O’Connor and Chris Joynt. They were great forwards. We did well and better than people thought we would, beating Scotland, Samoa and the Maoris before giving England a good game at Headingley. The atmosphere was superb that night.
Will you play for Ireland in the 2008 World Cup?
Yeah, if I’m still around but there are some great fullbacks who qualify like Karl Fitzpatrick and Stuart Reardon so there’ll be plenty of competition and Ireland will have a very good side again. I think Pat Richards has put his hand up and if that’s an indication of the quality, it should go pretty well and, of course, lots of NRL players will want to play, if they qualify, with the competition being held over there.
The 2001 Grand Final went like a dream for the club and for you personally. Were there any indications beforehand of what was to follow?
Not really. It was all pretty normal. We were calm and no-one was really nervous. It was just like a normal game and when we got out there we just clicked and, by half-time, we were sitting pretty and wishing it was full-time. As for me, it was great to score three tries and my support play was good that day but I’ve had better games to be honest. But you take the plaudits when they come along and it was an honour to win the Harry Sunderland award.
After that game David Waite selected you for the Great Britain squad to play in an Ashes series.
We were in Amsterdam when I got the call that I’d been picked and I thought it had been a wind-up because I hadn’t spoken to anyone about it beforehand. I got a lot of grief about it, especially in Australia which was disappointing. Look how many islanders they’ve selected since then. I was promised to start the first Test which didn’t eventuate and that was disappointing.
Do you believe Waite didn’t intend to select you and only named you in the squad to take the focus away from the other players, especially Richard Horne who was only 17 and lining up to play against Andrew Johns?
Yeah, maybe yeah. After the first Test, he told me he couldn’t change a winning side for the second. Then, for the third, he told me I had a chance but I was having problems with my groin so I told him that I was going to get that fixed instead.
Would you support Tony Smith selecting players for England or Great Britain who were born in Australia?
Yes, I’d certainly support it because I was happy enough to be chosen in the squad.
What were the other highlights of your Bulls career?
Winning the World Club Challenge against Penrith in 2004. I’d started out at Penrith and it felt good because I knew a few of them. I’ve mentioned Murrayfield 2000 but there’s also 2005. That was an amazing year given how badly we were playing in June and July. Saints thrashed us at home, we drew at home to Widnes and then lost to Wakefield on a boiling hot day at their place. Some home truths came out after that game and the guys who were leaving like Jamie Peacock and Leon Pryce wanted to go out on a high. We went on that mad run but it was a few games into it before we really got into top gear. That came at Headingley when we beat Leeds 42-10. People said that Leeds weren’t up for that because they had a cup final the week after but they were. The start of that game was like any derby. Then Les got six tries against Hull and we knew we could beat anyone by that point. We always seemed to come together at the right time of the year at Bradford and, of course, we went on to win the comp.
What went wrong mid-season?
I’m not sure to be honest. There were a lot of distractions in 2005 with contract negotiating and the rest. For those people to leave the club was a big thing and they told the rest of us it was the hardest decision they’d ever had to make. But they have families to support, of course. When it was sorted out, we got it together and the spirit we had came from the fact that the nucleus of the side had been together for so long.
You then found yourself in that position last year when you decided to leave Odsal.
It was difficult. I got offered a contract but it wasn’t what I was looking for because it was a massive pay-cut. So the decision was made for me. It was a shame that it had to end for me at Bradford because I never envisaged playing for anyone else over here but these things happen I suppose.
Before you went, Brian Noble left for Wigan and Steve McNamara took over as Bradford’s coach. Was that a smooth transition?
Yes, it was pretty easy. Macca had been around for a while at Bradford, coaching under Brian. He’s pretty smart is Steve and he didn’t try to change much. Brian Smith turned up for a while from Australia to help out and Steve will have learned a lot from him. This year, Steve’s doing it his own way and it seems to be working.
Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?
I can’t pick one single influence. Everyone I’ve been around at any time has been a big help.