Rugby League Heroes: Phil Clarke (Part 2)

In the first part of our Rugby League Heroes Q & A with Phil Clarke, he talked us through his Wigan, Great Britain and England careers.

He moved to Sydney in 1995, but 12 games into his Roosters career, he broke his neck the following year.

He has since moved into broadcasting and has been on the Sky Sports Rugby League team for over two decades. He was also the Great Britain team manager from 2001 to 2005.

Shortly after the 1995 World Cup, you visited South Africa to coach in the townships. What was behind that?

I knew I’d been very lucky in life, so I wanted to give something back. I went out to do some voluntary coaching in Soweto and the townships in the Vaal triangle.

I was trying to get over the disappointment of losing in the World Cup and would encourage more players to do something like this – I know NRL players have been to places like Rwanda.

Travelling is such an invaluable experience. I’ll always remember going to an orphanage in Soweto – such a humbling experience. I’d been to Papua New Guinea, but I’d never been so close to the real-life conditions I experienced in the townships.

I took some Roosters kit to give away and seeing the smile on the faces of those kids will stay with me forever.

You were coached at the Roosters by one of the great coaches, Phil Gould. What can you tell us about him?

He’s the best orator I’ve ever met. He could have been a barrister and would have been brilliant defending you in court. If your coach is naturally bright and inquisitive, you have more chance of being successful.

He had a fascinating personality and intelligence, and that made him someone you wanted to listen to you.

Some players might not be as important as others in the team, they all have different roles, but he persuaded everyone to contribute and focus on what they needed to do well to succeed.

You played 12 games for the Roosters. Do you have a favourite?

We won at Manly in 1995 and that one game was the reason why I decided to sign for the Roosters. We were a mid-table team. They were top.

You start to play sport for fun and enjoyment, but that can get lost in a professional environment.

I’ll always remember Phil Gould driving the bus back across Sydney Harbour Bridge after the game, windows open, singing as if we were back at school. Wonderful memories. Yes, Phil had a bus licence too!

The last game of your career came in round two of 1996 when the Roosters travelled to North Queensland. Do you remember anything of the day itself?

Yes, I was trying to buy a house in Clovelly. Houses in Sydney sell on Saturdays at street auctions. Because I was up in Townsville, I had the club solicitor bidding. I was on the phone at midday, listening to the auction.

Eventually I got the house. It was a big commitment, but by 7.35pm, I’d broken my neck and was on my way to hospital.

How did the injury happen?

It was early in the match. They kicked deep into our corner. Our fullback had been tackled two metres in from touch, with the tryline two metres behind him. Peter Jorgensen, the left winger, went to acting-half. I thought he would scoot himself, but he threw me the ball in the in-goal area.

I was determined to get out, so I put my head down as the defenders approached and my chin went down into my chest very quickly. I remember a loud cheer from the crowd, as they applauded a big tackle. I slowly got up, rolled the ball back and stood there not wanting to appear soft by leaving the field. The Roosters trainer, Ronnie Palmer, told me to come off for a minute to be assessed by the doctor.

It was unlimited interchange in Australia back then, and Phil Gould has said since that he doesn’t know if he would have taken me off if subs had been limited.

By the time I slowly walked off the pitch, all my neck and upper-thoracic muscles had gone into spasm to prevent me from moving my head. It’s very clever the way the human body works to protect itself. Neil Halpin was the club doctor, and his experience was vital. We are so lucky that we have so many wonderful doctors within the sport. I was quickly taken to Townsville Hospital, which was a smallish regional place back then.

Bizarrely, the doctor who treated me had been at Liverpool University when I was there. She just came out and said, “You’ve broken you neck,” which was probably the best way to break the news. Straight and to the point.

What happened in the subsequent days and weeks?

I was in a lot of pain. Nick Politis, David Gyngell and a few others from the club came to visit me and a couple of them had tears in their eyes. In the morning we flew back to Sydney and the plane had the front few rows of seats taken out, and I lay there on a stretcher.

I was taken to Royal North Shore Hospital by ambulance from Sydney Airport. There were three other people in the same spinal ward. It was a very distressing scene, and I will never forget it. Sadly, they will never walk again.

There was a gap of about 15 millimetres between the C4 vertebrae and my spinal cord. The vertebrae had moved slightly, but I had a few millimetres to spare. Had the bone touched the spinal cord, it would have been profoundly serious, and I am so fortunate.

When did you know for certain your playing career was over?

We initially discussed a few options, one of which was an operation so I could play again, but when we investigated, no doctor had done that exact operation, and no one had ever played again. It didn’t seem viable.

So it was about four months after the injury that I knew my career was over.

I had gone on a rollercoaster of thinking that I might never walk again, to believing that I could play again before finally accepting that my career was over. Ron Coote and his wife, Robyn, looked after my family and I have stayed in touch with them ever since. The club was fantastic. They have a ‘who cares wins’ philosophy and know that by looking after their players and staff, they will get the most out of them. It’s why they’re such a successful organisation.

Did you ever miss playing?

No, I’m just pleased to have made the recovery I made. The doctor told me that every morning when I throw back the bed covers, I have just won the lottery. I stayed in Australia until 1998 and the Roosters fixed it for me to work for Optus TV, covering games with former greats like Blocker Roach and Mario Fenech.

How did you get your job with Sky Sports?

In 1992, Neville Smith covered my graduation at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool on Boots ‘n’ All. It was the first time that we had really met, and we formed a connection.

In 1999, Joe Lydon was doing the commentary on Academy matches and when he couldn’t carry on, he recommended me – I didn’t fancy coaching because I don’t think I have the personality for it. I initially worked with Bill Arthur, who was very supportive, and I’m grateful to him for helping me to learn the basics. Neville was fantastic and Sky have been brilliant to work for.

Working with Eddie and Stevo was a bonus as I could learn from the best. Eddie was a world-class commentator and presenter. Stevo was incredibly helpful too. His delivery was as good as anyone’s. They’d been a double act for 20 years then a newcomer came along. I did feel a bit awkward at the start, but they were so welcoming, and I owe them all so much.

Have you got a favourite memory or game from your broadcasting career?

Great Britain winning against the Aussies in Sydney in 2006. No-one gave us a chance beforehand, and we got stick from the Aussie media, but I always recall Eddie telling me that we had a great chance and I believed him.

He knew that we pull off a surprise every now and then, and one was due. You do ride the game as a fan after all, and you get emotionally involved when it’s your country playing, so it made it even more enjoyable.

How did you become the Great Britain team manager in 2001? Why was the GB team much improved in the early 2000s compared to the late 1990s?

I had a meeting with [coach] David Waite to improve my knowledge for my work on TV. We clicked and he later offered me a role, organising things off the field.

A lot of the improvement in the team was down to David. He put in place plans to improve British coaches as well, but I don’t think they exist any more, and that’s a shame. Young coaches like James Ford, John Duffy and Danny Ward are just on their own with no official guidance, support or direction.

What other roles do you have in Rugby League?

I’m very proud to be a trustee of the Rugby League Benevolent Fund, helping people in both the short term and long term. My experience with a serious neck injury made me appreciate just how important help and advice can be when you most needed it.

I’m also a member of the St Helens Referees’ Society. Referees and touch judges love the game more than anybody and they do make games possible. They also get the best view, and I can now see why they do it.

They are the closest ones to the tries and get a buzz from being so involved.

I’m doing what I can to help the game attract more officials because we may see a spike in new players after the World Cup, and without enough officials the sport could miss an opportunity to grow. It does annoy me when coaches criticise referees aggressively at the professional level because it does have a knock-on effect in the community game.

Would you bet on England to win the World Cup?

I’m very hopeful. Having lost in the final myself in 1992 and 1995, I’d love to be there and see it happen. Good luck to all the teams at the end of the year.

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