Quickfire Q & A: Robbie Hunter-Paul

Bradford Bulls legend Robbie Hunter-Paul is in the hotseat this month, revealing why he pulled his boots on one last time, what went on behind the scenes at the Bulls and sharing his thoughts on a medal snub for Chewbacca in Star Wars…

Dale Ashbury: How special was it to play at Headingley in the Rob Burrow and JJB game?

It was special for so many different reasons. It was great to be able to support a player who has had 20 incredible years with one club in Jamie Jones-Buchanan. And maybe more importantly, it was about being able to support Rob and his family as they face the gigantic challenge they have in front of them.
They were the motivating drivers and to be able to run out and be part of that was special for me.
It was also great to be back in the changing rooms with the Bulls players and it nearly brought a tear to my eye to pull on the Bradford Bulls crest again.
It was probably easier for us out there than it was for the people watching because we were able to do something to release the emotion of the day. You could feel the emotion building throughout the day and the fact that 30 minutes after the game had finished not a single person had left the ground.
And to experience a Leeds v Bradford derby again at a packed house was great. There were old scores to settle, but the great thing about that day was that there was just so much love out there.

@lunt_d: If you had to pick your all-time 13 for the Bulls who would you pick?

Micky Withers at fullback. Lesley Vainikolo and Tevita Viakona on the wings with Shontayne Hape and Paul Newlove in the centres. Henry would definitely be in the halves, and I’d probably go for myself there as well, because we had such a good partnership when we played next to each other.
Then in the forwards I’d go for Jimmy Lowes, Joe Vagana, Paul Anderson, Stuart Fielden, Jamie Peacock and Graeme Bradley.
If that team had ever taken to the field together it would have been fantastic and looking at the pack, I probably wouldn’t have minded playing at hooker.
Actually, I wouldn’t, because facing that, the opposition would always run at the little one, and that would be me.

Man of Kent: Has anyone told you to ‘get off the bloody pitch’ etc when you do your stuff for the Beeb?

Never, that’s just a remit of the fans to be honest.
The reason why we do that and get in and amongst the players is that, unique from any other sport in this country, we are given the access to it.
We want to spread the gospel of Rugby League, and we are able to take our footage a lot closer than anyone else and you get given a look under the covers.
I know people say we should just let the players crack on, but I was a professional for 18 years and if someone asked me a question, it didn’t impact on the way I played. The people that we talk to are experienced players that are given the option to talk. If they didn’t feel comfortable doing it, we wouldn’t ask them.
The importance of it is that it is giving the audience that we need to turn into Rugby League fans an option to have a look at the athletes in their own environment.
Some people don’t like change but the response from that wider audience is that they love it.

Poppa Simon: Which season did you find most challenging, and why?

Every season was a challenge, but 2005 was probably the toughest year for me, and that included me making some tough decisions.
We had signed Ryan Hudson for that year, but then he got handed a drugs ban and it meant I had to go into the hooking role. I had never learnt how to play hooker and I’d said to Nobby in 2004 that I didn’t want to play there. But when Ryan got his ban I was needed there and as a team player I did it. Because Nobby knew I didn’t really want to be playing there, part way through that season we brought in Ian Henderson. But by that time Paul Deacon and Iestyn Harris had got into a good groove in the halves so it was tough to find a role for me there.
Jon Sharp at Huddersfield had been in touch with the Bulls because I wasn’t being used and they wanted to talk to me.
I had been at Bradford for 13 years and had been a bit of a pin-up boy and all that nonsense, so it was about much more than a player moving clubs. There was a lot of emotional weight behind it but Nobby had his combinations and knew I wanted a challenge so that’s when the talks started.
It was only when I went to Huddersfield and played alongside Brad Drew that I learnt how to play hooker. I was using up too much energy defending, and I wasn’t big enough to be an out and out defensive player. But I was a good attacking player and that’s why I was used in that role. But I do too much work all the time and I was trying to get involved in every tackle. Once he told me how I should be playing as a hooker it blew my game right open.

@amy_essexgal: What has been your career highlight?

There is actually two.
First is the 1996 Challenge Cup Final, and I am under no illusions, I know I made my career that day. Three tries that day, the youngest captain to lead a side out at Wembley and a Lance Todd trophy on a losing side. That motivated me for the rest of my career, because I never wanted to experience a loss like that again.
The other was the 2001 Grand Final. That was the first time I have ever played a complete 40 minutes where everything just went right. Everyone turned up, everyone did their job, everyone was on fire and it was a seamless performance.
It was also the last time me and Henry played together professionally so it was an emotional occasion for that reason as well.

@championship_rl: What was your first rugby memory?

I got the ball and remember running and running and running before getting tackled. I got up to play the ball and the referee told me I’d scored a try.
I was four year’s old and playing Mini’s in Henry’s team in New Zealand. I remember going to the Prizegiving thinking that I was going to get player of the year for that one try and I was absolutely devastated that I didn’t – Henry got it, again.
I think I had played before that, so it wasn’t a debut try, but that’s the first thing I really remember.

Gooleboy: When you took up office at Bradford what was your first thoughts regarding the state of the club?

If I’m honest it was a mess. People had good intentions, but not necessarily the experience.
It was hugely challenging to be a part of that and over the time I was there, between 2013 and 2016, people were suspicious there was something underhand going on, but I never saw anything like that or untoward.
At all sports clubs everyone is working towards the same outcome – success. But ultimately only one club out of however many are in the competition are going to win and get that success. How do you get success, you buy players. Players cost money and if you get caught up in focussing on the outcomes of games and come away from what the club were really strong in, for us that was match day experience, then you fall down and you’re building your business model on unstable foundations.
What I loved about Bradford in my time as a player was that the business model was based on a game being an awesome day out. Leeds Rhinos have always done that well and Warrington are starting to do it as well.
At Bradford we were getting our highest average crowd in a year we finished fifth, which tells you something. Success is not the thing that drives audiences, it’s the experience.
It’s not just the Bulls that have got that wrong, lots have and when I had the title of CEO, I was more like a general manager and still had others above me. The models they were building on were based on success. They wanted to get out of the Championship and they threw everything at that, but the team underperformed against Wakefield in the Million Pound Game. We just didn’t have the finance to run it how the owners wanted.

@robkenyon1: Why didn’t Chewbacca get a medal at the end of Star Wars?

There could be a few reasons. Maybe it’s racially motivated, or perhaps he was allergic to the metal used in the medal and it reacted with his fur.
Or there is another way of looking at it – maybe he wears his medals on the inside.

@lunt_d: Where do you see Bulls finishing this coming season?

I saw a lot of heart in the game against Leeds Rhinos and I’m hoping for a top five finish. But it’s a brand-new squad that John Kear is working with.
When you need to be good at the right time to get promoted, that timing and ability to play in the pressure of the play-offs is a different animal all together, and you have to take your game to a much higher level. It takes time to learn how to win those games and I have never seen a team come together and do that straight away.
It takes time, but after seeing what I saw at Headingley, when you have a solid front row of Steve Crossley and Anthony England, and then add some other experience and talent into that, it does give me real optimism that the Bulls can make the play-offs.

Charles Marshall: Who was the best player you played with?

I have played with some great players, but it has to be Henry, without a doubt. In his three years at Bradford, he was one of, if not the, best player in the world. We knew he was one of the best in this country, but when it reached the internationals, he took his game to another level and just terrorised some of the best players in the world. In the 1999 Tri-Nations, the Australians couldn’t handle him – he was on absolute fire.

Mumby Magic: Who’s the best coach you’ve played for?

Again, I played for some great coaches and each of them had their own strengths. But the coach who probably brought the best out in me was Brian Smith, and I was only under him for just over a year.
I had some good tools, but in a very short amount of time, he was able to teach me to play very differently and how to use those tools to benefit the team.
My most successful years were under Brian Noble, but the person who started all that development was Brian Smith.

SL17: Which team did you enjoy playing against?

Rhinos, hands down – that’s what it was all about. Playing teams like Wigan and St Helens were always good, but it was the Leeds games I always got excited about.
At the time, it was the biggest derby – bigger than Wigan v Saints – because we were the two teams at the top.
They were epic games and in the build up to them it was all everyone talked about. Everyone knew the game was on that weekend and you couldn’t get away from it.
You would always get caught up in that emotion and excitement.

@emma_tr4_rhinos: Who was your role model and why?

Henry and my dad. I grew up in Henry’s shadow my whole childhood. He is two years my senior and we did everything together. As a kid and then a teenager, Henry was so driven and always wanted to be the best. He also wanted to learn how to do everything the best, which is quite funny because he said in an interview once that I was a more natural athlete then he was, but I wasn’t. It was just that I was being taught by the best. Henry would try and do something and get it wrong, he would then try and try and try again until he got it right. I would watch him to learn how he got it right and I’d do it right first time. My trial and error was watching him get it wrong.
My dad was my coach during my teenage years, and when your dad’s the coach you have to lead by example. He was a big fan of Wayne Pearce, and he was all about fitness, so my dad was big on that too. He put the pressure on me to become super fit and doing things right from the front and set some great foundations.

Gerrumonside ref: What will be the impact of Sonny Bill Williams be on Toronto Wolfpack?

Sonny is a great addition to the Toronto side.
He’s well into his 30s now so is coming to the back end of his career so we can’t expect to the see the dynamic stuff he used to come up with in his mid-20s. But one thing that comes with those years is experience and knowing how to do the right things at the right times. Given the opportunity Sonny can still do things that no one else on the planet can do.
Brian McDermott will need to play it smart with him and use him at the right time.
Sonny is the ultimate professional and he does all the little extras and trains hard. For the players around him that becomes viral and they will look to replicate what he does.
He’s the stick that everyone in Super League can measure themselves again.

DoubleD: Do you think you’ll ever return to New Zealand or is England your home now?

Well I have got four kids and only one of them is in New Zealand, so I think that says a lot. I can’t be without my family and I am now part of the furniture in West Yorkshire. This is home for me now and New Zealand is still home, but it’s more of a holiday destination now.

The Quickfire Q & A appears every month in Rugby League World magazine.