This article originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine.
Mike Rush has filled virtually every role at St Helens and has overseen the development of the likes of James Graham and James Roby. Jamie Jones-Buchanan uncovers his unique Rugby League story…
Mike Rush is as close as I have come to the “American Dream” notion in Rugby League, with an unbelievably fruitful career at St Helens. Over the course of 15 years he has made the absolute most of a chance at his hometown club by taking up various roles, which ironically consisted – for the most part – of providing opportunities to others.
Rush knows every square inch of the St Helens machine, both physically and philosophically. He has been on a path that saw him head up youth development, move through to assistant coach, head coach and general manager, before taking on his current role as chief executive.
When I arrived to meet Mike at Langtree Park, I convinced I knew a fair bit about Rugby League.
It turns out I was wrong.
Here’s how his remarkable Rugby League story unfolded.
“I played at Blackbrook from the age of eight – I played at school and also played a bit of Academy rugby at Huddersfield,” he explained.
“Alex Murphy was in charge at Huddersfield – I still speak to Alex today but I never really took to it if I’m honest with myself. It was a dream of mine to be a rugby player but I was never going to achieve anything more than Academy, so I played at university and it was absolutely class.
“There was a period of about five years where I didn’t play rugby but now I play masters with Tommy (Martyn). We have a little team called the Casuals and we play rugby union against other old people.
“I’m a St Helens lad through and through from an area called Thatto Heath. My family is from there and my first job was teaching in Wigan – it was a trek every day over Billinge hill into the dark side. I started out as a PE teacher and Gareth Hock was one of my pupils at St Thomas Moore in Wigan.
“I only did three months as a teacher and then I travelled the world with two best friends from university. We bought a campervan in Australia and travelled New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, America and all the way home. It took 18 months of our lives.
“When I was in Brisbane, Saints rang me and said, ‘Would you like to come home?’ They offered me a job in youth development.
“That’s why I came back. Working with kids from my teaching background it felt right. I remember walking through the doors in 1999 and they said they would have a new stadium within three years. I thought oh brilliant – hometown, new stadium in three years, this is great. It took more than 13 years in the end!
“I’ve watched Saints and had a season ticket from being five years old. My only break from it was when I went traveling. It was my hometown and there is a bit of fairytale to it that I got a job here, never mind do 15 years.
“A lot of the kids that we bring through at the club are St Helens kids, but we try to pick up the kids that a Wigan, Widnes or Warrington might miss because it’s a floating community.
“It was great to see those lads like Roby and Graham progress and it’s lovely to see Jammer playing for the Bulldogs when you know you played a small part in their development.
“We never get carried away thinking we’re responsible for those kids making it, because those kids are themselves responsible. They have a talent, what we try and do is steer them down a path, whether it’s about making their skill better or improving them off the field. We realise that not every League player is an altar boy and a few have some rough edges. You can’t make them cleaner than clean but you can help them down the right path.
“I’ve been very lucky that Derek Traynor, who coaches the under-19s, has been with me from day one. He’s been with me every single day whilst I have climbed the corporate ladder and ended up CEO. There are a lot of good people behind the scenes that don’t get the recognition that they deserve.”
The RFL chased Mike and offered him the opportunity to become national youth manager. Even this early into the interview, I have no doubt that they were chasing the right man but despite being offered more money at the governing body, he just felt there was still more to do at his home town club.
In many ways it’s a shame, because I have no doubt he would have made an holistic difference in our game, and subsequently maybe even the make-up of the Elite Training Squad in the years prior to the World Cup. Equally, there’s no doubt Saints have benefited from his continuing work and I wondered which homegrown players produced the finest fruits.
“I’ll never forget the contribution that James Graham had in giving us a benchmark,” Rush responded.
“He was 15 when I walked through the door, playing under-19s and we laugh about it now but he had a fiery, fiery temper, he would get sent off and kick corner flags when he was young. He’s still a competitor playing right on the edge as we all know.
“James Roby will always be up there. He came through on a different path because at 17 he wasn’t a signed player then at 18 he made his first team debut.
“If you watched him in the pre-season before he broke through he was just a phenomenal athlete that had to just grow and learn the game. We didn’t sign him at 16 – so we got it wrong – but we didn’t sign him because we didn’t think he was going to be big enough. We learnt something from someone absolutely nailed on in Graham, and learnt never to ignore someone with a James Roby character.
“Jonny Lomax for his courageous effort. He came back from a whack on the head from schoolboy rugby and the first thing he asks when he comes round and is compos mentis is, ‘When can I next play?’ When I was growing up, Jonny was a baby across the road, so I’ve known him since the day he was born and he is a phenomenal character.
“Paul Clough would train the house down to make the best of the abilities that he had. He was never going to be beat for effort, never going to be beat for attitude, he would never be late for anything because he didn’t want someone to have an opportunity to find fault with what he does.
“Each of them had their own little unique things too – that’s what made them special.
“Paul Wellens is good too. He has played a massive amount of games and Keiron Cunningham had done before him. We’ve got two blokes there with not three years between them in age that have probably played nearly a thousand games between them.
“Both lived so near to the old ground that they could throw a stone at it from birth and it’s inspiring when you get kids like that at the club.”
I’ve been in the game long enough to see that head coaches need people like Mike Rush close to them to provide an invaluable insight into local players, cultures, beliefs and ethos. The way people act, in my experience, is directly related to the way they think, and any coach coming in needs to be empowered by this knowledge if they want to understand the culture of a club.
That’s where the likes of Mike Rush are priceless. He naturally moved towards being an assistant and I wanted to know if this was always one of his goals or just a product of circumstance.
“Daniel Anderson stitched me up! We all knew Daniel was leaving at the end of 2008 and I had helped in 2006/7. He really embraced the Academy and he’s had a massive role in this club’s history. Not just because of winning all that silverware – he was the one who convinced the board more than anybody else that because we had a great crop (of kids) now, if we carried on investing we’d harvest even more.
“Daniel just said to m, ‘You’ll help this year won’t you?’ I was like, ‘Yes I’ll help you but you know I’m still going to do all the kids as well’. Daniel was so hands on, he actually reminds me of Brian McDermott at Leeds now.
“I’d helped in 2006/7 when Alan Wilson was his assistant coach and that just carried over. The natural progression was when Mick Potter and Keiron Purtell came in and I took a step back by the time Royce Simmons was in charge. I had already started to do more in the office. I wanted to learn about how the stadium runs, learn how the profit and loss work and the budgets too.
“I have a great relationship with Daniel Anderson to this day; I spend a lot of time with him and speak to him on the phone regularly. I have nothing but good words to say about Mick because he carried that legacy on; so did Royce and now Browny has been brilliant.
“If you look back I’ve ended up getting on with all of these people because of what Daniel instilled in me. So he had the biggest bearing on me as a person in my working career with the exception of the chairman (Eamonn McManus), who’s been there for 14 years. Eamonn has given me a clip round the ear when I’ve needed one, and has picked me up, dusted me off and sent me back on my way when I’ve needed that.
“Ando was the one that was first to ask what the club’s philosophy was and what do we want to be. Do we want to buy overseas players or do we want to produce kids forever and ever? If we wanted to then we had to play them and understand they are going to make mistakes. Mistakes come with young players but come 10 years down the line and they win you a Grand Final, then it’s all worthwhile.
“It’s that longevity that he brought to it. He is a phenomenally clever bloke – he gets Rugby League inside out. He’s just one of them blokes that can turn his hand to most things. Him and the chairman have been the two biggest influences on me.”
The recent sacking of David Moyes at Manchester United sparked a media debate as to what makes a good leader. There are many literary theories and documented models about what makes a good leader, based heavily on proven leaders from the past, but I challenge you to find any book about leadership with anything in the contents about “succession”.
At a club like St Helens, which has had a successful recipe for the last decade, it seems to me that the key is to manage that successful formula and ensure its passage down from one generation to the next.
It’s interesting to see Mike Rush and Keiron Cunningham, both of whom were a part of the St Helens culture for well over a decade, step in and have an instant influence when Royce Simmons left in March 2012. It’s too early to validate yet but Ryan Giggs’ instant revival (at the time of writing) of Manchester United would seem to confirm my thoughts too that succession is often best from within.
Having had this positive and exciting time as head coach, surely he must have got the bug and fancied taking it further?
“When they asked would I help, it was a short term fix as it wasn’t fair to throw Keiron in there on his own,” he explained. “Although, I’ve always stated this on record that Keiron did everything in terms of how we attacked that year.
“He knew the philosophy that we’d had for the 10 years before, so he had a big say and a big impact in the way we tried to get them back playing. I remember Eddie from Sky interviewing me after a game saying, ‘This coaching job is easy’, I said, ‘Well, it’s not but all I have done is take us back a little bit to what are we good at’.
“If you think back to the success the club has had, it started with the Bobbie Gouldings, Karl Hammonds and Tommy Martyns and that carried on with Chris Joynt and Paul Newlove going into the 2000s.
“Then Keiron, Scully and Longy took it through the next decade before Graham, Roby and Lomax took us to where we are now. That cultural change probably happened with winning the first trophy and it just keeps going.
“I think big clubs like that have an aura and expectation when you walk into them. That’s what those blokes back in ‘96, ‘97 and ‘98 created and we have kept a cultural core who have kept that going. Peacock, Sinfield and others will have kept that going for you guys.
“People say we haven’t won anything from 2008 and we’ve not, but we have been bloody competitive – you lot has beat us how many times in Grand Finals? But we still got to Grand Finals. The fact we came away without a trophy is disappointing, but you’re still there with 65 minutes on the clock in the last game of the season, still fighting for the only thing that’s left.
“The head coach job was nerve-racking, daunting – every fear that you have ever felt. I called all my closest coaches into a meeting and said look, they have just asked us to do this and I am bricking it!
“I didn’t sleep the Sunday and sat outside the head coach’s office on Monday morning with Keiron, neither of us wanting to go inside the office. Luckily we got off to a perfect start, it was just getting those senior players to have a little bit of belief and unfortunately it didn’t finish up the way that we wanted it to but we got pretty close.
“I would never lie to you and say it wasn’t a fantastic experience, but do I lie in bed now and find myself day dreaming and thinking what if? No I don’t. I remember taking the kids to Cyprus after it and I did struggle for three or four days thinking if we had just been better in that last 40 minutes against Warrington I would have been able to go to Old Trafford. But genuinely even if we had gone on and won it, I still wouldn’t have wanted it the following season.
“I thought its Browny’s job now, what’s next – when are we going to Australia? People think, ‘Oh no you wouldn’t do that’, but it was genuine. My wife will tell you even if we had won it I wouldn’t have stayed on – it wasn’t the path that I wanted. Since 2011, I knew I would love a crack at building the club for 20 years and see where I can take it, could we make it profitable and stop having to rely on owners.”
I think chief executive at any club would be a dream target job for many older players finishing the game. I can think of two players in particular in my team at Leeds who would make great CEOs, but by the very nature of the path that Mike Rush has taken, you would be hard pressed to find a player – or anyone else for that matter – who has the richness of experience that he has. At just 38 I wondered if chief executive was the pinnacle of his broad and inspiring career to date.
“I’m not the most sane and sensible CEO in the world – I still have some way to go before I’m a polished CEO, but we have a chairman who carries that gravitas and when he walks into this building a lot of people still are in awe of what he’s achieved in building this stadium and the success we have had.
“Eamonn comes in once or twice a week and people act different we he’s there, but I find when I’m around people don’t change. That has created a successful corporate team outside my door, it’s very positive, and this year we should break even as a business.
“I know there’s a good shift in this job for me working toward delivering 10 years of financial success, but it’s no good doing that without getting to Old Trafford and Wembley, winning trophies. That’s a massive challenge for us to build that squad who are successful on field and can keep your fans coming through the turnstiles. We’re not after making millions, we just want to make money that we can reinvest in the club and facility. There’s plenty of work to be done.”
Luke Walsh, Kyle Amour and Mose Masoe have all been quality signings this year and have added to the youth and experience of the St Helens team. Recruiting players is nothing new to Mike – in fact identifying talent from a relatively blank canvas of the youth system must in many ways be harder than picking out established players who will fit nicely into the St Helens machine.
“The detrimental part of myself and Keiron having to take control in 2012 was we knew we were doing it short term and had let Nathan take control of who was coming in 2013,” he explained. “In hindsight that was a real difficult job for Browny because he had to take our opinion about the ability of players we had and their characters.
“He had to trust that those players were the way we said they were and then try and add to it. The benefit with Browny being here for 12 months now means he knows those players for himself and how he wants to reshape them.
“Last year Browny had to reshape the team, moving Jonny from seven to fullback then bringing Luke Walsh in. It’s been a big move for us as a club and we have invested in a lot in British talent. I would like to think that we are on the cusp of another little dynasty. It’s about being there at the end of the day giving yourself a chance to win trophies and lady luck will have a say in it.
“All me and Eamonn ask is that Nathan tells us what he wants and within reason we go and try and get it. But if there’s a decision to be made about keeping three of your own or going to get a 34-year-old overseas player then it might get heated.
“We have to balance the greater good in the long term for any short term. With Browny we are very fortunate that he gets it. One of Browny’s mission statements if you ever spoke to him would be that he left St George in a better place than he found it.
“He left Huddersfield in a better position than when he started. If he can leave us in a better position then we should be winning trophies and he prides himself on that.
“He’s contracted till the end of next year, I hope he does longer, but if he decided to go home because there was an NRL offer or for family reasons, he will have left our club in a better place than when he found it.”
My favorite part of the interview was probably listening to Mike talk about his aspirations for the club’s foundation and how it would be a vehicle for all the high quality work St Helens do to reach out and touch the local community. I am a trustee for the Leeds Rugby Foundation, and I absolutely love the some of the opportunities we can provide for some of our community to fulfill their potential and be everything they can be. There’s no finer privilege as a sportsman than to help, support and encourage the youth and surrounding areas, and be a real landmark figure of culture an identity to the surrounding areas.
“Our Foundation is what we want to develop next,” he said. “I had the chance to listen to Phil Gould who’s running the Penrith Panthers club. I sat with Phil and asked what would you like to do at your club and he told me that he’d like every child born in a Penrith Hospital to be given a Panthers kit. I thought how good would that be if all the St Helens kids got the same and we got them locked in.
“We have Warrington on one side and Wigan on the other so a few stray through the net and end up fans of those clubs. You have to listen to men like Phil Gould who’s been round the block as a coach, administrator and commentator. Something like that would be great, to spend sixty grand on kit that we are giving away to every child born in the town. It sounds like we’re becoming North Korea but it wouldn’t be.
“It’s a great game, we want everyone to know about it and get the same enjoyment out of it that we do. Most of our town love it too, but it would be nice to be able to do those things that when you losing money you just can’t do.
“Every day last season we were walking into working thinking, how do we not lose money today. Now we come in asking how can we make more! It’s a massive shift, more so at nine o’clock at night when I put my head on the pillow.”
You get the impression that with Mike Rush at the helm, St Helens as a club will continue to move forward in coming years.