Interview: The story of Leigh coach Paul Rowley

Rugby League World writer Neil Barraclough hears how Paul Rowley’s steely determination has shaped his blossoming coaching career…

It is a story that dates back more than a quarter of a century, to when a 13-year-old lad from Leigh first walked into a club with which he was to become synonymous.

Now, as he leads his team to yet another Championship Grand Final, Paul Rowley has developed into one of the country’s top coaches.

Leigh won their first 18 league fixtures this year, setting a new club record in the process – and also gave Leeds a genuine run for their money at Headingley.

This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet

In the intervening years, Rowley’s path has not always been straightforward – but it has been tackled head on. A return trip from Leigh, taking in stops at Halifax and Huddersfield along the way, Rowley was widely considered one of the best hookers in the game at the turn of the century.

But here, in a remarkably open and frank chat with Rugby League World, he reveals the details that weren’t known publicly – until now.

Rowley’s start with Leigh was unconventional, to say the least. “Alex Murphy brought me down when I was 13 and they took me on pre-season camp with the first-team squad, with the likes of Bob Beardmore and some of the other old-timers.

“I borrowed my dad’s going out shirt, which was three sizes too big, just in case we went to a pub, and I slept on the floor in Eric Hughes’ room like Oliver Twist. It was certainly an experience, but that was the environment I wanted. I was very driven. That experience probably culminated in me getting the youngest ever captaincy at Leigh at 18.”

“The lads would go to the local butty shop, but I knew they put butter on their sandwiches there – so I’d wait until I got home instead.”

But it was no fluke that Rowley, a workaholic who was obsessed with his fitness and discipline from a young age, had come to Leigh’s attention.

“Myself and Simon Baldwin, from the age of 13, we would do various runs and sprints, carrying the ball in the left hand, right hand, then a two hand carry, and time ourselves.

“Failure wasn’t an option, and it was never going to be. We did what we needed to do and we’d work hard. I even had my own key to the gym.

“I’ve still got the records, the times of what I did for 60m sprints and 100m sprints, with the ball and without, and was making my own game-related stuff to suit my needs. I knew I needed to be the fittest and strongest that I could be. That’s probably got me where I we needed to be. Speed and fitness

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were always strong attributes for me.”

Rowley credits his dad, Allan, with instilling that determination. “Your dad is always a role model, and he gave me hugely important help and advice. He gave me the right attitude from the beginning.”

His approach to training, he admits, was bordering on obsession. “After training the lads would go to the local butty shop, but I knew they put butter on their sandwiches there – so I’d wait until I got home instead. It was extreme, but I do believe it kept me injury free and a step ahead of everyone else. It also made me mentally tough and installed a huge self-belief in my physical and technical abilities.”


At 18, Leigh appointed him captain. Rowley was making a name for himself, and bigger clubs would soon come calling.

His success, or at least part of it, can also be traced down to his approach to the opposition. “I always requested footage of the prior game,” he says. “I wanted to know what the markers were doing, who the lazy people were, who the slow people were, when I was going to run or not.

“Some players are more into it than others, but I always treated it like war. If you’ve got some intelligence, you wouldn’t walk to the front line without making use of it.”

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The win-at-all-costs mentality produced results, but at times cost him in other areas. “I never had any fear about what people think. I’ve been bossy and single-minded, and I needed to be at the time, but as I got older, got into coaching and got into family, you realise everything’s not black and white. It used to be that for me. I just did what I needed to do. I was never shy. I would see anyone not putting in the effort as that they were personally hampering my prospects and ambitions. I could be ruthless at times.”

Eventually, it was time to leave. Despite his love of his hometown team, Rowley says leaving Leigh “wasn’t a wrench at all”.

“I was just following a burning ambition to be successful,” he says. “Leigh were hitting financial trouble, and the administrator told myself, Simon Baldwin and Scott Martin that if we didn’t leave, we’d be the cause of the club going bust. It would be easy to play the martyr and say I didn’t want to go, but I followed an ambition.”

At Halifax, international honours came calling. He played in England’s 2000 World Cup campaign, but never quite got the recognition his talents deserved.

“I had a deal on the table from Wigan on two or three occasions, and had one from Leeds as well, but the people running Halifax at the time unfairly held me back and wouldn’t allow me to go in search of international honours. When you’ve read two, three or four years’ of press where everyone puts you as Great Britain hooker, but you don’t make it because of being at unfashionable club, it becomes hard to take.


“In the end they (Halifax) put me on the list at a world record fee, £350k or something like that, so basically I wasn’t going anywhere. The deal with Wigan scuppered, and then I met up with Gary Hetherington and I turned them (Leeds) down because, through dialogue with people at Halifax, Gary knew what I was earning.

“Contracts are private and confidential, and on this occasion it wasn’t. I was so annoyed that I turned Leeds down. Halifax then offered me a contract worth half of what they’d offered me two weeks earlier, and that’s where my fall-out with Halifax came from – the immoral way in which I was cornered, scuppered and almost bullied.

“Thankfully a bloke called Chris Whiteley, who was a director at the time, wasn’t happy with it all. He signed me on a better contract – but he was subsequently ousted.”

Three years later, and with Rowley’s closest friends of Karl Harrison, Simon Baldwin and Michael Jackson all moving on, the Bosman ruling had filtered into Rugby League. A switch to Huddersfield beckoned.

“I needed to move on,” he says. “I made a silly comment when I left saying I’d learnt more in a week at Huddersfield than my entire time at Halifax, and it was an inexperienced and childish statement to make because it offended lots of people who were so good to me. I still have very good feelings about Halifax.

“Having said that, I really enjoyed my year at Huddersfield. We got relegated, but what I learned under Tony Smith about man-management and how you treat people, I’ll never forget.

“They go on about depression in sport, and it’s hugely neglected in the Championship. I had five or six years struggling to find a purpose after I finished playing.”

“That year was a huge learning curve for many reasons on and off the field, and I’ll always be grateful to Tony for what he taught me. He definitely helped me shape my own values and morals as a coach.

“When you’re coaching, you tell people what you’ll do and you make promises, but you don’t often get the opportunity to back up those promises. Tony got an opportunity to show me that he cared about me as a person, not just a player, and he knows and I know that I’ll always be grateful for the way he treated me. I’ll always be loyal to him. He’s 100 per cent shaped me as a person and a coach.”

At 26, and approaching what many would perceive as the peak of their career, Rowley rejected moves to Australia and London for a return to Leigh and life outside Super League. “I’d have gone to Australia at 22 or 23, but it wasn’t right for me at 26,” he says.


He did have one more year in the top-flight, during Leigh’s ill-fated Super League campaign of 2005, but that did not mean a shortage of success. Rowley has won three Northern Rail Cups since his return to the club, and is now talked about as a certain Super League coach – either with the Centurions, or elsewhere.

“What I was destined for was a life in rugby,” he says. “If that made me a kit-man or a cheerleader, I was always having a life in rugby and that’s what I was prepared to work hard for.

“Having a leadership role from such a young age meant coaching was a natural progression. I like responsibility; I don’t fear or shy away from it. I like people to rely on me and that’s a kind of military trait that I like routine. I’ve had routine since being 13 years old. Doing anything else would have probably just seen me off.

This article originally appeared in Rugby League World magazine. Click here to download the latest digital issue to your computer, smartphone or tablet

“They go on about depression in sport, and it’s hugely neglected in the Championship. We’ve had one State Of Mind chat since I’ve been at Leigh, but I had probably five or six years of really being upset and struggling to find a purpose after I finished playing. Even now, when I watch anything sport wise, if there’s an anthem – I’m gone, there’s tears everywhere.

“I went to watch Elton John at LSV. He set off singing a song I used to listen to on the morning of a game, and my wife looked at me and I was an absolute mess. Rugby League is almost a military operation to players, and it can leave players in an absolute mess emotionally. If I didn’t have the coaching, it doesn’t bear thinking about where I would be.”

But now Rowley and Leigh are looking at a bright future. Super League is in their sights, and Rowley appears determined to take his team there.

“I’ve had a couple of opportunities to move in what are probably deemed as step-ups, but what I’ve done at Leigh is from a starting point of eight players and no staff. I’ve got a massive amount of loyalty to these guys, because I spoke about honesty and loyalty, and for me to preach and then go against it would undermine my strength as an honest coach.

“I’m too loyal to this staff and the young players at the moment, and I’m driven to make this group as successful as they can. I’m not looking beyond this group of players and taking them as far as I can take them. Whether we get there by luck, judgment or hard work, we’ll keep banging away.”