My life in Rugby League: Richie Mathers

With the Australian Schoolboys currently touring, does it bring back memories of your series win against them with the England Academy in 2002?
Yes, absolutely! When I look back now and think of the set-up that Mike Gregory, God rest his soul, put together, it was very special. I remember it being really fiery in the first game at Knowsley Road. Mike made us realise we needed to get into them and we had Ryan Bailey, Gaz Hock, Jon Wilkin, Jamie Langley and Bob Beswick up front. There was a huge fight just before half-time. There was loads of needle and we ended up hanging on, but in the second game at Headingley we won more convincingly.

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Looking back at the teams, some players have had excellent careers, but some fell away. Why do some guys not make it?
There can be varying reasons. The step-up to Super League is very big and a lot of it comes down to desire. You’re right at the bottom of the ladder in the professional set up and it can be a real shock. It comes down to how much you want it and how much you are prepared to sacrifice. And in the past, it might have been that however good you were, there might be a couple of Aussies in your way, although at Leeds they gave the Academy boys their chance. Daryl Powell was incredibly brave in taking that stance. But now, with the salary cap, there’s more emphasis on bringing the young players through and the successful sides tend to do that.

In your early days at Leeds did you ever doubt that you’d make it, given that you were loaned out to Warrington?
Yes, although I’d been loaned out before that when Gary Hetherington sent me to Hunslet when I’d only just turned 17. At Hunslet I played with men, warriors of the game. He did it to show me how lucky I was to be at Leeds. Then in 2002 I went to Warrington and really enjoyed my spell there. I played in all the backline positions, but the team wasn’t going well, so it was tough. I came back to Leeds and played in the last five games through to the play-offs.

Having cracked the Leeds first team, how did you feel when they subsequently signed Gary Connolly to play fullback?
At the time I was probably a bit immature and thought I should have been playing every week, so it did make me wonder where my path was going, but I probably wasn’t ready for that. Leeds needed an experienced fullback and it was done with a view to developing me. I still regard Gary as a legend and a good mate. He spent a lot of time with me and I shadowed him for a while. I got my chance later in the year.


It wasn’t long before you were a Super League champion.
2004 was an unbelievable year! We seemed to win comfortably every week. Gary played a couple of games, but then hurt his ankle and Tony Smith told me the shirt was mine for as long as I deserved it. To end the year winning the Grand Final was great. The memories are all a bit of a blur, but Paul Deacon bombed me religiously in the first 20 minutes. After Danny McGuire had scored, which is the overriding memory, it was just sheer relief and we could enjoy the last ten minutes.

2005 is remembered for the two finals you lost. Does that annoy you?
Yes, because we were better in 2005 than we were in 2004! We had the two 70-0s against Wigan and St Helens. The level of rugby we played was superb, and I don’t think a team has been that dominant in Super League. The Cup Final was gutting, but what an experience! In fact, I don’t ever remember being so tired after dealing with Paul Cooke’s and Danny Brough’s kicking games all afternoon.

Do you regret leaving the Rhinos?
No. I could have won more by staying and I’d never have left for Wigan or St Helens for instance. I had a four-year deal, but Michael Searle from Gold Coast Titans got in touch, which was a real shock. I spoke to my dad and he told me I’d always regret it if I didn’t go, so I went for it. Leeds were due to announce it on the Monday, but then I did my left anterior cruciate ligament on the Friday against Hull and went to Australia having to do rehab. The Titans were great. We were in a beautiful apartment and I’m so glad I went. I played for Burleigh Bears and then six games for the Titans. I was just getting my form back when my other ACL went in a routine scoot from dummy-half against the Tigers. That was as low as I’d ever been. I sobbed my heart out in the changing rooms, because I knew what was ahead of me. And I was so homesick. Then in the off-season, completely out of the blue, Brian Noble rang me and asked if I’d play for Wigan.

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What do you remember of your time there?
I have no fond memories of Wigan. I don’t have anything against the club, and in hindsight I should have moved over and lived there and not in Leeds. I’d come back from two ACLs and I was rubbish for Wigan. I had no confidence in my body, and that’s something that people don’t realise. They are a massive club, and expectations are huge. I struggled with it all. The more I put into it and the harder I trained, the worse it got. I didn’t fit in and it got to the point where I was dreading going in.

How did the Warrington move come about?
Tony [Smith] rang and said that Wigan wanted Martin Gleeson and I could become part of the deal. I was so happy I could have burst into tears, because I knew Tony could get me right again. I’d have walked to Warrington! Tony worked me hard, and he was tough on me, but we have always had a good relationship and I knew he would be good for me. Beating Wigan in the Cup semi-final was fantastic – I just dropped to my knees and cried at the end! And the final against Huddersfield was something I’ll never forget, because I’d lost my mum at Christmas in 2003, and in our family the Cup Final is the biggest day. She was in my mind when Abide with Me came on. I was in the tunnel and I just thought “don’t start crying here!” And then 60 seconds into the game I scored. The last 10 or 15 minutes were brilliant because we knew we’d won.


Warrington replaced you with Brett Hodgson at the end of the following season. How tough was that?
Very! In April Tony got me in, sat me down, and I thought it might have been about a new deal, but instead he tells me they’ve signed Brett Hodgson. He wanted me to stay, saying Brett wouldn’t play every game because of his age. Maybe it was pride, but I wanted to move on and be a starting player somewhere else. I was gutted because I loved the club, and still do. I wanted to stay there for the rest of my career. Rugby League is what it is and it can be cruel. I was so gutted that I very nearly went to rugby union with Leeds Carnegie, but the deal fell through. Later that season, we won the Cup again, against Leeds, and on the day everything we practised worked. It was unbelievable, just the most complete performance I’ve been involved in. I ended up at Cas which was a really good club and well run – a family club with salt-of-the-earth people. We started like a house on fire, and were beating big sides, particularly at home. But then Terry told us he was leaving and in came Ian Millward for 2012, which changed everything for me. He rang me two weeks before pre-season and told me he didn’t want me, and that Richard Owen would be the fullback. I was treated unbelievably, and to this day I have no idea why. I wasn’t allowed to train and had to get the players’ union involved. I had to train by myself and not with the team because he thought I’d steal his ideas if I went anywhere else!

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How did you end up at Wakefield?
Richard Agar came in and offered me a lifeline and I’ll be forever indebted to him for that. They were the closest set of boys with no egos. We trained hard and had great team spirit. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Wakefield.

Did you have the chance to remain in Super League?
Yes, but it all happened really late for me. Webbo took over from Rich and he wanted me to stay, but I was waiting and waiting and getting quite stressed. I thought I played well last year and in the end they offered me one year on reduced money and told me they might not be able to sign it off until the end of the off-season. I nearly went to rugby union in France. But then I met Joey Grima and knew straightaway London was right for me. His vision and passion were great and I’ve enjoyed it down here. It’s an unbelievably professional set-up and the challenge of getting them back in Super League is one I’m really looking forward to.