‘My Life in Rugby League’ for League Express with Tommy Gallagher in 2007.
Are you looking forward to playing for Ireland in next year’s World Cup?
Definitely. It’s a great opportunity and it’ll be a big honour if it happens. Barrie McDermott and Terry O’Connor will be involved and, having been such good players, they’ll do a lot for us. Hopefully they’ll make a few top players who qualify for us come and play. Also, they’re recently retired and they’ll be in tune with the players. I know Barrie form Leeds and he’s a top bloke. They’ll bring a bit of fun as well and that seemed to be a big thing for the squad in 2000. But we need to qualify first.
What’s the latest with your fitness?
I got a medial strain in my knee playing in the Under-21s against Huddersfield but I’m fit now and hopefully I’ll be in contention for the Leeds game.
How do you think the season has gone for yourself and the club?
We made a great start but unfortunately we then went on a losing streak. But the signing of Cookey has given us some confidence and it was great for the lads to beat Hull in Cardiff. We’re training hard and hopefully we can string some wins together. I think my form has followed a similar pattern. Good at the start but then I tailed off a bit as the team started losing. It’s hard to put my finger on but I can only train hard and listen to Justin on how I can improve.
What’s Paul Cooke done for the side?
He’s got great experience and he’s not afraid to speak up and make some good points. He’s given the club a big lift and given us both confidence and experience. He’ll bring the best out of a number of players as well with what he can do on the pitch although we’ve not been too far away in the games we’ve been losing. We’d been putting too much pressure on ourselves rather than putting it on the opposition. That’s something we’ll have to rectify in the coming weeks.
You’ve played Super League before for London and Widnes. What do you remember of those two clubs?
I had a really good time in London. They gave me a chance to play for the first team and I played 10 Super League games there in 2003. We had a bit of a winning run and the whole thing was a great experience for me, especially playing with guys like Dennis Moran and Billy Peden. I got on well with Dennis and he just couldn’t stop scoring tries. Billy, meanwhile, was such a professional. He really stood out and he taught me a lot about how to be a professional. He tackled above his weight and kept going for 80 minutes. I learned so much from him. Widnes was different though. That was a relegation dogfight that I was in and it was a real test of character.
Did you get close to the first team at Leeds?
I was 18th man on one occasion against Huddersfield at home in the Super League. I got to warm up with the side but that was the closest I got. I spent a long time there and didn’t really get close. It was frustrating but there were such good players in front of me like Matt Adamson, Dave Furner and Jamie Jones-Buchanan so I had to find another route to play in Super League. However, I played with some great players in the Academy like Rob Burrow, Danny McGuire, Chev Walker and Matt Diskin. I’m glad to see them doing well and we had great times back then winning Grand Finals. I’ve no bitterness towards Leeds. It was best that I went rather than stay in the Academy although I was disappointed at the time. Tony Smith told me that if I wasn’t in the first team after a while, he’d release me and that’s what happened.
While you were an Academy player you played for England against the Aussie Schoolboys and was part of the team that beat them for the first time. You scored a try from the halfway line didn’t you?
Yes, at St Helens in the first game and it’s one of my favourite ever tries. In fact, it was the cover shot in League Express! We had a great team and 90% of us are playing Super League at the moment. Those games were fantastic and we weren’t going to get beaten. There was a lot of pressure because Australia hadn’t been beaten for so long and we should have even won the games by more. I remember after the first game, David Waite interrupted our celebrations in the changing room to tell us we had to back up and beat them again at Leeds. He was a bit down on us to be honest so it was great to beat them again.
After Widnes, you moved to Toulouse in 2005. How did that come about?
Justin Morgan knew Stuart Wilkinson, at Leeds, through the Wales team so Stuart asked if I’d be interested in going to France. I said that I was and I ended up talking to Justin and I went over to meet him. I was on a full-time contract and I had a car and an apartment with its own swimming pool. So I was well looked after. I was just upstairs from Justin and over the road from the Aussie players.
James Wynne was one of the Australians and he now qualifies to play for France. How good is he?
He’s a very good halfback and a good friend of mine. He was Andrew Johns’ understudy at Newcastle for a while and learned a hell of a lot from him. He’ll cause Great Britain some problems if he’s selected in the June’s Test match.
What was the lifestyle like in Toulouse?
It was great and I loved it. The only downside was not having my friends and family there and I struggled with the language a bit but I had a great time and would recommend young players going over for a year for the experience. It’s not a bad comp and the lifestyle was unbelievable.
Who were the best French players you played with?
Damien Couturier who moved to Hull KR with me although he’s been injured recently and Sebastien Raguin who made a name for himself by having a blinder against Leeds in the Challenge Cup semi-final. He’s now at Catalans and was doing well before his injury.
What was that Cup run like? Were Widnes over-confident in that quarter-final over there?
Probably and we spoke about the fact they may be over-confident. Justin got us used to the heat with the timing of his training sessions and we shocked them with how well we played. The heat was ridiculous and some of the guys played 80 minutes. I don’t know how they did that. I’d played for Widnes and it was good to beat them but they didn’t recover from that loss and it was a shame to see them relegated. I’m sure they’ll be back soon though. Then we got Leeds in the semi-final at Huddersfield. We went in thinking we had a chance and scoring first helped us believe that even more but the fitness differences told in the end and they racked up a few points in the second half. But we gave them a fright and it was a piece of history for us to be the first French team to make the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup.
Did you come away thinking the French game was in good health?
Yes, although the only downside was the refereeing. I’ve no idea what some of the penalties were for! The game will get bigger and bigger over there.
How did you end up leaving?
Justin called me into his office and told me that he was going to Hull KR and that he wanted me to go too. So I did and he got it sorted out. He’s a great coach and I knew he’d take me places and he has – into Super League. I came over towards the end of the 2005 season but we lost in the play-offs to Halifax.
Last season went like a dream didn’t it?
Yes, it couldn’t have been any better. We only lost a couple of games last year and played some awesome rugby. We did everything that needed doing and we were coached well. It was a fantastic season even though we lost the Northern Rail final to Leigh. We didn’t have James Webster that day and we were disappointed to lose but we knew it wasn’t the big one. The big one was getting promoted to Super League and we did that.
What do you remember of the Grand Final win over Widnes?
We went in confident that we would win and we got a great start. We didn’t play so well in the second half probably because we were panicking about holding on but we did what we wanted to do and we’re in Super League now.
Who’s been the biggest influence on your career?
My mum and dad. From a young age they’ve helped me and travelled all around for me. They’ve stuck by me and given me all the advice I’ve needed. Being in Super League now is as much for them as it is for me. They knew it was my dream and they’ve always been behind me.