First published in Rugby League World, Issue 364 (Aug 2011)
My school life didn’t really come to anything. I got six A’s and they all stood for Absent!
SIMP-LEE THE BEST
JJB meets Warrington’s talismanic half-back Lee Briers.
It was my privilege to meet up with a real rugby legend this month who is quite literally one of the defining characters of the Super League era. I was stepping into the unknown too because I hadn’t previously met Lee other than on the field, where the last exchange of dialogue between us consisted of him trying to persuade me that I looked like Mr Potato Head. It is well documented that his extravagant ability is rooted in his personality, so meeting up with him made for an extremely enlightening day.
He is a cult hero at Warrington, certain to appear in the forefront of their history books once he decides to hang up his boots. Like most, I know him as the extrovert heart of the Wolves that beats hard both on and off the field. He is the tough, clever, resilient half back, the type that away fans love to hate. His resilience is almost dogmatic and it’s the origins of this that interested me the most. Way back in 1997 he was instrumental in securing a Challenge Cup final place for his old club St Helens but was later, maybe unjustly, left out of the team to play at Wembley. But he has demonstrated throughout his career the ability to absorb the rough with the smooth, which he believes is largely down to the bond he’s always had with his ‘off field team’ – his family.
“I just think taking pride in what you do creates resilience. Rugby is my life, other than my family it’s the next best thing. If you don’t care enough about it then you shouldn’t be in the game. Obviously not just in the game but in life, if you don’t get upset with things and want to better yourself day by day you’re going to struggle in any sport or job. When you get a setback it’s just another challenge for you to say ‘well I’m better than that,’ and can come back better and stronger. Missing out on the ‘97 Challenge Cup final at Saints was very disappointing. It’s a part of the game though and it does create that resilience and experience. It happened to Richard Myler here at Warrington last year. With me going through the same thing I could help him through it.
“When I was a child I was an absolute nightmare for my mum and dad. I’ve got three older brothers and a sister. My oldest brother being 50 and my youngest next to me would have been turning 45 this year. There was a big gap between us so I was probably the little sod messing about. It was a strange upbringing in that regard but I never wanted for anything, my mum and dad where awesome. We lived in a council house and my parents still live there now to this day. My family is my life and I wouldn’t have been anywhere near the person I am today without those two.
“One of my brothers played rugby but because there was such a big age gap we weren’t like traditional brother and sisters. I got into rugby through friends at four years of age knocking about with nine year olds. I would hang on to them and they would take me everywhere and it got to a stage where I went training with them, just playing around at first but then I ended up playing. I’ve just been talking to Woody (Paul Wood) about it because it was his amateur club where I made my debut – St Williams – at four years old. I was put on the wing, didn’t touch the ball or make a tackle. I think that was probably just through mithering the life out of them that I played.”
“You never want your family to see any of the bad publicity. My eldest daughter [Sophie] is 14 this year, she’s into twitter and facebook where you get the idiots who want to put on what players do along with the rumours; it’s not nice for them to see that but as long as they know me for who I am and how proud I am of them and them of me, that’s all that matters in my life. My close family and friends, if they know what I am like then I don’t care about anyone else. My close family are my world and its great. My lad [Reece] has just turned 8 and he’s playing rugby every week. It’s hard to watch him play and not to think that he should be doing what I’m doing and you have to hold back sometimes but there’s nobody prouder than me when I’m watching him. Sophie is brilliant too, she’s 14 going on 30; both her and my wife [Vicky] keep me down to earth and level headed. Vicky grew up in rugby, her dad played at Hull KR and her brother Craig Hall plays there now, so she knows a fair bit about the game. I dragged her out of Hull all those years ago which she’s probably happy about!
“I think you need to stay level headed in our game, in fact it’s our duty to stay level headed. It does my head in when people moan and say I don’t want to play these games or those games because its a privilege to play Rugby League and we should never forget that.
“As soon as you get on the social networking sites like twitter you are setting yourself up for a response; you have to be willing to take the good and the bad. I’ve mainly had positive things but you get the odd person wanting to be an idiot. I’m not on there to cause friction, I’m there to let fans know what life as a rugby player is like. You get idiots in any walk of life, just out to abuse people, you tend to find that the ones giving out the abuse have maybe one follower, but everyone has their own opinion. I never thought I would get on it, but I’ve got quite addicted to it, it’s a bit of fun with the boys, but you are open to criticism.
“When I was a kid all I wanted to do was play rugby and there’s no shame in saying it. My school life didn’t really come to anything. I got six A’s and they all stood for Absent! So it’s strange I’ve never had a big priority in schooling but now that Reece is at school and Sophie is in high school, for me to help them is a different challenge and one that I enjoy. I’m trying to set them up with some life skills that I have picked up along the way and adding the school work to that; the main thing is that they want to do well in school and I’m helping them toward that. They’re really clever to be fair, I don’t know where it comes from but it’s great to see. Obviously with my daughter reaching 14 she needs to start setting some goals in whatever she wants to do, whether it be University or college or wherever her focus is. I will only ever push them in the right way, same as my lad – if he doesn’t want to play rugby then he doesn’t want to play. I will help them in whatever direction they want to go and give them the tools to achieve those goals.”
PROUD OF WALES
Lee has shown real integrity in choosing Wales as his international team and sticking with them through the length of his career. From a memorable display against the Australians in the 2000 World Cup to the up and coming Four Nations at the end of the 2011 season his Welsh pride has never wavered. Because he’s been such an instrumental player in Super League over the last decade many have asked whether he has been overlooked too many times in Great Britain squad selection. Like a chef, every coach picks the ingredients that he thinks he can work up into the perfect dish, but Lee seems to be that large pinch of seasoning that surely most dishes would benefit from? I wanted to know if not playing for GB more than the once left a bitter taste in his mouth and whether there was an appetite for a return of the GB team?
“I have never regretted opting for Wales over England. I have never thought once that I should have tried for England. I am a big believer that once you choose your country then you stick to that with no regrets. We all have our own opinion and the loophole is that the international system allows people to switch. You can’t blame players for doing it, but I’m not one for that. I think that there should be more pride in your country and when you choose it, that’s the end of it.
“We [the Welsh team] are under no illusions that the Four Nations this year will be real tough. Again it’s about pride in yourself and what you do and in that jersey. I know it’s going to be a special time for Wales and all the lads who pull on that red jersey. We will give everything, whether that’s enough, only time will tell but we will come out of it better for being in it.
“It’s funny because I was only recently talking about that game I played in for Wales against the Aussies back in 2000. Darren Lockyer will retire at the end of the year with the most caps for Australia and the most games in the NRL, most State of Origins etc, and it was me really who put him on the stage when I outjumped him to score the try in 2000. That’s what I tell everyone anyway! We had a chance to win but in the end their class showed and that’s why they’re so good as a team. The experience of all the lads putting in though beats any personal performance, when everyone puts in that’s the best feeling you can get.
“I don’t feel bitter about my GB history, it all comes down to whether you fit into the coaches plans and obviously I didn’t. Do I regret not playing more? No, because you can only do your best and if you don’t fit in the plans well you don’t fit in the plans. Could I have done things differently in my so called lifestyle? Yeah, possibly, but can’t we all. We definitely need to bring GB back because there are going to be some Welsh kids like the Evans twins at Warrington who are unbelievable talents who have chosen England because they want to play in bigger games for England. You can’t blame them for that. I can have a bit of banter and give them some stick in jest but at the end of the day they want to play against the best and they can only do that with England at the moment. If we are serious about improving our international game then surely we have to keep our four home nations apart and then come together as Great Britain. That’s the way it will get stronger.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
The reason we play any game in the first place is surely to have fun and enjoy ourselves. For some, this truth starts to dwindle as the seriousness of their careers, their team and their roles within them manifests itself into a laborious activity. Lee Briers has never lost the fun which is evident to anyone who watches him play. He has also had the privilege of working with one of the best coaches in the world – Tony Smith – and quite possibly the best player ever in the world – Andrew Johns. Just how much did his love and fun in the game marry up with the skill and expert tutelage he’s experienced from some of the best there is, and how has that influenced his game?
“What I learnt from Andrew Johns in the space of just three weeks was ridiculous. I thought I knew the game, and being a half back I thought I knew most things but he just took things to a level that I will never see anyone get to ever again. He’s just freakish, it was an absolute privilege to be there. You just stand on the training pitch doing unopposed and he’s running round the field telling everyone what to do and telling everyone why he has the ball in his hand or why it should go a different way. I thought I was good at organising things but he just takes the mick.
“I think Tony Smith loves the dynamics of our team, he’s a big part of what we do. He’s a great coach and a great person to be with and I think that’s why he is so good because he knows how to work us, he knows how we fit together and lets us do some of our own thing. If he doesn’t think something is right he’ll tell us and I think that’s why we have been so successful as a team in his time because he knows how to man manage people.
“For me individually he’s helped me to not put too much pressure on myself on game day; there are 16 other players around me and we have some quality players who can win games on their own. I think that’s helped my game, not having to be in every play and do all the kicking and all the moves because we have got quality all around. His man management all round just makes me tick. Paul Cullen before was also brilliant for me, he taught me how to be a man, if you like, and brought me through the so called wild days, then Tony came along and took me to a new level. He gets me playing the right way and tells me when I’m not doing it and when I am, along with giving me the responsibility to do that stuff.”
PLAYING WITH A SMILE
“I think my character does influence the way I play. If I was sad and morbid about playing Rugby League I would pack it in! It’s a game I love that brings in a decent wage, why shouldn’t I smile? I know you get beat and it hurts like hell but it’s a game, there’s always a game next week. Is it life or death? No! You have to have fun and enjoy it. In Smithy’s first year, one of the earliest games we got beat by Harlequins by 60 or 70 points and I’d had a shocker. I just thought ‘does life get any worse?’ and I thought yes it does. I went to work with one of my mates who’s a plasterer and worked as his labourer for the day. I carried his buckets up and down the scaffolding for two days just to get me back to thinking Rugby League is a job and a hobby, it’s not a chore! That’s the way I got my head back into it. When you see people who have to do night shifts and tough jobs like that, it can become morbid and they have to do it. We just turn up for a few hours a day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the fittest or best trainer but I put in and I think that’s what it has to be about, you have to enjoy it and put a smile on your face.
“Kids need to remember to enjoy themselves 100%. You get too many people now stuck in one position, who get told they can’t go anywhere, they can’t do this or that, which for me is a load of rubbish. You don’t coach something out of somebody if they have talent and skill. I have seen too many coaches doing the six o’clock pass telling the kids not to spin the ball; what a load of rubbish that is! I wouldn’t like to run onto a 20 metre 6 o’clock pass; if you’ve got a spin pass then let them spin the ball. You choose the right pass depending on what you want to do but you can’t flat tell them not to spin the ball. I’ve been at amateur clubs and seen coaches like this: I tell them that it’s wrong and they need to let them do what they want to do.”
SILENCING THE BOOS
Following the recent Exiles game in which many of his team mates figured I talked to Lee about his thoughts on what seemed to be a really positive weekend for the game. It wasn’t without its issues, which are essentially a part of of sport. With his lengthy experience and time to reflect I wondered how he felt about players having to back up for their clubs on the same weekend. And what were his thoughts on the booing of Sam Tomkins, a player who’s on field character resembles his own?
“I thought Sam Tomkins getting booed was disgusting. I think it was the lowest of the low. I’m not blaming any group of fans in particular, it could have been anyone. When opposition fans boo you and call you names it gives you a buzz, it does for me anyway, because it means they’re worried that you can do something against them. That for me is a kind of compliment, but when you get your own fans booing I think it stinks. I got in late the night of the Exiles game and I turned it on in the second half and I heard some booing and I thought that can’t be right, so I rewound it and there it was. When Sam got slammed by Francis Meli and they were cheering, I just thought it doesn’t get much lower. I think Jamie Peacock was right when he said he’s England first then Leeds. Rugby union is a game that when you go watch England they all support England and have their songs. Maybe England needs a song for the fans to sing but then I guess it’s hard when there’s no opposition fans.
“For me personally the Exiles game has to happen on a separate weekend. I’m not just thinking about the players either, I’m thinking about the supporters too because to take a family of four to a game on Friday, I would have a wild guess that they would spend between £60 and £100 on the night. You shouldn’t ask them to do that again on the Sunday in today’s climate when there’s not a lot of money around. Let’s look after the supporters, give them the weekend off, then maybe they can save up and get a special price done for them. Then I think a good 14,000 crowd could increase to a 24,000 crowd. I think the game’s moving too quick to be playing two games in a weekend.
“It’s tough on the players to do the two games in a weekend. We lost to Salford but I’m not into excuses. Salford turned up and played exceptionally well, they played the conditions well, but there’s got to be something in it. Having said that, Leeds got a big win against a team with no Exiles so there’s an argument there too. I think the Easter games are done and dusted though, they’re a joke – they are when you’ve just turned 33 anyway!
“We are always talking about improving the game and talking about being the best, we have to move with the times. I think the salary cap has been the same for a long time. Rugby union has increased theirs, the NRL has increased their cap. We don’t want to get into a situation where we are getting second rate Australians taking big cash home. Let’s face it there could be Aussies coming over here with hardly any first team experience drawing £100,000 per year. Is that fair on what we have over here? I think if it goes that way we need to really look at ourselves. The issue is where the money comes from. I’m not too big on the money side of things but I would guess that a lot of our clubs are not spending the full cap or dealing in profit at the moment. It needs to go up somehow to be competitive, how we do, it I don’t know. I’m not too clued up with the figures but it’s definitely something the administrators need to look at and sort out one way or the other.
“I also think that if you have a home grown player that you have brought through and who has been at the club for a long time then he shouldn’t count on the cap. Like myself, I have been at the club 15 years, I don’t think I should count on it anymore – which gives me more money (laughs), there needs to be incentives.”
Much of Lee’s success has accumulated all at once. He won the 2009 Challenge Cup, then the Lance Todd trophy whilst winning the 2010 Challenge Cup. Looking forward to what he wants to achieve next I asked if he would rather the magic “3 in a row” of the Challenge Cup or was he ready to press on for his first Grand Final trophy?
“The Challenge Cups stand out having waited for so long for a trophy. It’s not an individual thing because I have been with Warrington for so long dealing with the highs and lows. For the club and the town it was an outstanding achievement. The Lance Todd individually has to be right up there, I might look like an individual out there at times but to me the team is everything, that’s the be-all and end-all in life. My family is my team at home, that’s who I look after and at Warrington it’s the boys. It’s all about the team.
“Winning the European Nations Cup with Wales last year was so satisfying because no one gave us a chance. France played three games at home, we played two away. It seemed like everyone wanted France to go through to the Four Nations but we went there and turned them over which was very satisfying. Making my debut for Great Britain was special. All the things like that are. Hopefully I’ve not seen the end of the success.
“A third Challenge Cup or a Grand Final? I would be greedy and say both! It’s a question that comes up a lot. What we want to do is give ourselves a chance of doing both and that means when a Challenge Cup game comes round, performing on that day. We struggled last year, winning the Challenge Cup then backing up in the latter end of the season and we want a chance to put that right. All the top sides are in the last 8 so it’s going to be real tough.”
LIFE AFTER RUGBY
I can’t do justice to all who Lee Briers is here, but he’s planning to release a book maybe late 2012. I for one would be very interested in reading it. He recently became Warrington’s highest ever points scorer, passing both Steve Hesford and Brian Bevan. I couldn’t help wondering if we would ever see a Keiron Cunningham style statue of Lee Briers in the centre of Warrington one day.
“When I gave the kicking duties up a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I was going to get the club’s points record but I have just been plugging away at it. At the start of this year someone said I had 80 points left to go, then we played Keighley and Brett Hodgson didn’t play, so I was kicking and I think I scored 32 points. The week after got 12 against Castleford. Now, no disrespect to Swinton, but when that Challenge Cup game came around I said to Hodgy, ‘I’m kicking the goals’, to see how many I can knock off my points tally. Not in my wildest dreams did I expect to score 46 points in that game. I didn’t even know how close I was. The bloke with the kicking tee came on at one conversion and said ‘this is the one!’ It was one of those that was like 10 metres from the post and I was bricking myself, but it went over. To pass Steve Hesford, and Brian Bevan and to be mentioned up there with those guys is something special and if I am even mentioned in the same breath as those blokes when I am finished then that will do for me.
“Not much interests me away from rugby. I’m a keen golfer, if I could have the dream job it would be a pro golfer because that’s a great job. My son is getting into golf now so I’m hoping he will make it as a pro golfer and I can be his caddy. His mum and sister can stay ay home whilst we travel the world.
“I definitely want to go into coaching, that’s the next step in my life I think but there’s not too many jobs about. I’ve got an apprentice role now and learning from, as I see it, the best coach there is so if I can’t learn from him then I won’t learn at all. Having said that I have my own way of coaching and will have my own stamp on it all. I think that’s important, you can’t duplicate someone else; you have to be your own man.
“I’m in the stages of putting a book together now as well. The inspiration for the book is my kids really, and wanting them to know my life story. I didn’t think I was important enough to write one, I didn’t think I had done enough in the game but a company contacted me about doing it and the more thought I put into it the more I wanted to get it out.
“I very much doubt there will be a statue (laughs). I’ve heard people talking about something like that – I wish – I don’t think I would be worthy; there have been a lot more players at Warrington who have done more than me. If I can just be remembered as someone who gave his all for the club, then that would be enough for me.”
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