Rugby League Heroes: Eddie Hemmings (Part 2)

Eddie Hemmings talked us through his early career in part one of this Q & A which you can read online here.

When Super League began in 1996, he and Mike Stephenson were in Paris delivering the action into our living rooms.

They remained the faces and voices of the sport for another two decades until Stephenson’s retirement, producing dozens of iconic moments, most notably the commentary for Chris Joynt’s ‘Wide to West’ try in the 2000 play-offs.

Did you think Rugby League had cracked it after that opening night in Paris?

Yes, absolutely! So much happened that night. It was great to see Super League get underway. There was pressure on Neville Smith to do something different, because Super League was going to so big, so he got Stevo on the pitch with a microphone to announce all the players as they ran out. It was absolute chaos, because Stevo disappeared in all the smoke and struggled with the French names! We also had the first video-referee decision and I said that Stuart Cummings would look at the screen, because I forgot that there was a video ref.
There were 17,000 in Paris to watch a Rugby League game. That still amazes me, so, yes, we really thought it was the start of something massive. We did three games in three days back then, so we got home and went to Oldham the next day. That brought us down to earth a bit. It was all about pre-match entertainment back then and it wasn’t the best.

If Paris was a highlight, which matches left you feeling the opposite?

Great Britain being thrashed in the 2004 Tri-Nations Final after winning the group stage was one. And the year before Australia won all three Tests with late scores. My biggest regret is not calling an Ashes series win. I wish Shaun Wane all the best, but I’m not sure we’re close to winning a series.
Then there was the World Club Championship in 1997. What a mistake that was! We’d just got Super League up and running, but we got absolutely trolleyed by the Australians. It must have set the Super League brand back a couple of years.

I was never sure if you were a Widnes or a Warrington supporter. Were there times when it was difficult to stay professional?

Not at all, because I never was a fan in the strictest sense. I used to say I supported Widnes because their late Chairman Tom Smith got me into the golf club. I got on with Jim Mills, Dougie Laughton and Frank Myler, and it was easier for me to say I supported a team that wasn’t in Super League. I was just a fan of the game itself and of teams that did things well, like St Helens, Bradford, Wigan and Leeds. I really liked the Castleford team of 2017. They gave us Sweet Caroline before the England football team. I loved singing it at Wheldon Road, but I was no Cas fan.

Tell us about Wide to West.

We recently did a programme with Matthew Elliott, and he was probably right to point out that it wasn’t a penalty. The game seemed over and all of a sudden this magical moment appeared. You talked about preparation earlier, but that was a time to put down your notes, discard the phrases in your heads and just speak from the heart. To his eternal credit, Stevo let me have it until Chris Joynt put the ball down. Dwayne West came on at the end and it was his only play-off appearance, but he had Super League’s most famous moment named after him!

Did you feel a twinge of sympathy for Joynt, an incredibly modest and unassuming man, that he scored such a famous try and it was named after someone else?

Yes – and he said that to me when Saints presented me with a lovely picture of the try. It was such an amazing moment though and people still talk to me about it. I’ve heard people say it was my Kenneth Wolstenholme moment. If that’s the case, I’ll die happy.

Did you rewatch games to assess your performance?

Not really. Stevo certainly didn’t and claimed to have never watched anything he did – although he must have rewatched his interview with Matt King because it was so well done. I watched a lot of the retro stuff in lockdown and got a buzz, thinking it was pretty good. But I didn’t watch it at the time. If I got a tryscorer wrong, I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I suppose that’s a bit daft.
I remember a funny moment at Headingley when I commentated that Lee Jackson had shaved his hair like David Beckham. In my ear, I heard Neville say that Beckham is a Leeds Rhinos fan, and I repeated it without thinking about it. They were all falling about in the studio because I fell for that.

Which was the worst stadium you worked at?

The old Willows ground was unique because we’d do the commentary among the crowd in the stands because there wasn’t a proper gantry. It was a bit dilapidated. I also remember a game at Belle Vue when our studio was a portacabin above other portacabins. The floor collapsed about half an hour before kick-off! We thought we’d plunge 20 feet to the ground, but Stevo got out first and we managed to follow him, and we had to present the programme from pitchside in front of the big screen – which became our monitor. It was a fantastic team effort to still get the programme done.

Talking of Wakefield, can you talk us through the day in 2009 that Leon Walker died?

What an awful day! We were due to cover the Celtic Crusaders’ home game against Wakefield, but we got the terrible news from the reserve game in Maesteg that Leon had been taken ill and died on his way to hospital. John Kear was the Wakefield coach, and he came to the studio to tell us and then completely broke down. He was absolutely heartbroken. The Super League match was postponed, and we showed the previous season’s Grand Final instead, which was put out from London and topped and tailed in the studio at Bridgend. We broke the news afterwards.
We then covered Wakefield against St Helens five days later. The players emerged in such an eerie atmosphere. I had the job of talking to the public during that moment and I got some grief from people below me who could hear me. But I had to do my job. That was a harrowing moment.

It appears the sport is planning another restructure. We’ve tried most things down the years – which system did you think worked the best?

Two tens might be the way forward with promotion and relegation between Super League 1 and Super League 2. I’m not sure there are enough players knocking around for 14 teams in Super League, but we could be back to boom and bust if they send four down. Who knows what it would mean for clubs outside the two tens, but you have to ask what they are bringing to the table.
I was a fan of licensing. It was criticised, but without it there’d be no Catalans Dragons because they came last and were exempt from relegation. You have to give teams a chance. Rugby League is very different to Premier League football.
I like the top-five play-offs, but eight teams were too many. But whatever the format, the Grand Final is fabulous. Old Trafford under the lights was so special. It grew and grew, especially when the Challenge Cup Final was taken away from Wembley. We got 38,000 at the first one, and it just grew and grew into full houses. There was Joynt’s voluntary tackle, Rob Burrow ducking under the tackles, Michael Withers’ knock-on and so many more great moments. And then last year in front of nobody, what a game and hats off to Sky for producing that. What a player Jack Welsby is!
Another thing I liked was the Club Call, although I know people hated it. It provided something unique for Sky Sports News on a Sunday afternoon. It got people watching in droves.
I liked the Million Pound Game too. The Salford win at Hull KR was incredible, but I realise it’s a nightmare for players not being able to get mortgages with their futures up in the air.

You were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013 but remained on screen. How did it affect your work?

I told the crew at the Wembley weekend in 2013. I was 63. It was diagnosed after a random blood test. I phoned for the results and was told there was nothing to worry about. I asked for my cholesterol, and they said, “Oh, actually, it’s a bit high.” I asked for my PSA and got the same answer. So I felt something wasn’t right and asked for an appointment. Then I got the news. It didn’t sink in to begin with. If I hadn’t asked those two questions, we might not be talking now.
I was fortunate that it wasn’t a virulent strain and that it could be controlled. I was told I could wait and see without having an operation. I liked that at first, but the last thing you think of at night is “I’ve got cancer” and it’s the first thing you think in the morning. The specialist steered me towards a course of hormones and radiotherapy.
I came back from holiday in December 2013 and went straight to hospital for the treatment, so it was done during the off-season, and I started work again in the January. I was treated at Clatterbridge Hospital. My oncologist is now a friend and he’s a big Saints fan.
I was captain of the Warrington Golf Club and we raised £10,000 for the Clatterbridge Cancer Trust as a thank you. I also arranged a screening programme, which cost a tenner each. We got 108 people to do it through the golf club, and half a dozen were recommended to have a further investigation. That might have saved a life and, if so, that’s great.

How emotional was your final game for Sky in 2019?

It was emotional to a degree. All the family were there, courtesy of Wigan – some of the grandkids hadn’t been before. I’d made my mind up a wee while before that it was time. Stevo had gone. Neville was going, but Ian was still around. Wigan treated us like royalty. It was emotional. I’d written out what I was going to say. I said it had been a privilege, but moreso a pleasure and an honour.
In my lifetime, timing has never been of the essence. I’ve always blundered my way into things, but it was a good time to leave, especially with the pandemic we have now. I’m full of admiration for the boys now working in these conditions with no crowds for so long. It’s easy with a crowd. I can’t imagine working with no crowd, so hats off to Bill, Ben, Barrie, Terry, Brian, Clarkey and Wellsy. I don’t know if I could cope with it.

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