Rugby League Heroes: Frank Endacott

One of Rugby League’s great international coaches, Frank Endacott led New Zealand to three wins over Australia and a further seven over Great Britain (or England) between 1995 and 2000.

He coached them in two World Cups and came within an ace of winning the 1999 Tri-Series Final against Australia.

“Happy Frank”, as he was universally known, also coached New Zealand Warriors and Wigan, where he was crowned Super League coach of the year in 2000.

If you could relive one day from your Rugby League career, which would it be?

I’d like to have the 2000 World Cup Final again and this time win it. And a few weeks before that, Wigan lost the Grand Final to St Helens. Losing twice at Old Trafford in such a short space of time was no fun, so I’d like those two days again.

Tell us about your time as a player.

I played for the 15-year-old Kiwis against Australia and then first grade for about ten years in Canterbury. My playing career stopped abruptly when my wife’s parents died quite close together, and we had two families to bring up. I had one year in rugby union when there was no grade in league, so I was playing against All Blacks when I was 17 and then against Kiwis from the age of 19. I would have loved to play for the Kiwis, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Which prominent players played for you when you coached the Junior Kiwis?

I coached them in 1992 when we beat the Aussies for the first time in history – and we beat them good. Joe Vagana was in that side. The two centres were a future All Black captain in Tana Umaga and a future Kiwi captain in Ruben Wiki. Then we went on a 12-game, two-month tour of England in 1993, which was terrific. A lot of parents told me their son went away as a lad and came back a man. We won eleven games, including the Test at Wembley. Henry Paul was on that tour and ended up playing for the senior squad because of injuries.

You coached the Kiwis in the 1995 World Cup. How did you feel when you trailed the Tongans 24-12 at Wilderspool?

We were 12 behind with seven minutes left. Someone was injured, so I sent a message down through Gary Kemble, telling Matthew Ridge to settle down and work out which plays to go with. Hitro Okesene and Richie Blackmore had just come on. The message came back from Ridgey: “Tell Frank not to worry, it’s all under control.” I just laughed. Then Hitro scored in the left corner. Ridge converted. Richie scored on the right. Ridge converted again. The scores were level. There was a minute left and Ridgey kicked the drop-goal with his left foot. Amazing stuff.

Do you still go to bed at night wondering how Ridge’s drop-goal in the semi-final didn’t go over?

It was agonising, wasn’t it? It was such a fantastic revival because we were 20-6 down after an hour against Australia. Then we came back, as we had done against Tonga. This time Matthew missed the important kicks. He came up with his worst kick in years when he had a conversion from the sideline to win the game with two minutes left. Then, in the last minute, he got the ball on the halfway line and attempted a drop-goal with his weaker foot. There was a coat of paint in it. Agony.

Tawera Nikau told us recently that he and Richie Blackmore have buried the hatchet, but how much of a problem to you was their feud? Did you attempt to talk Tawera around?

No, I don’t kiss anyone’s arse to play for the national team. Tawera’s wife, Letitia, God bless her, was his manager. She came to my office just before I picked the team to play Australia in 1995 and told me Tawera wouldn’t play if Richie played. I said I was going to pick Richie.

In 1996 I picked a young fella called Logan Swann instead of Tawera. He hadn’t played first grade at the time. He went on to play 35 or so games for the Kiwis. It was unfortunate, because Tawera was a great player, although maybe you need more caps before you can be called a great player.

What do you remember of the 1996 series against the Lions?

The first two Tests could have gone either way because Great Britain had a very good team. But so did we. We won the third Test easily. I remember Daryl Powell having a run-in with Ridgey at the end of the third Test and getting sent off. Daryl is a great guy and a very good coach now with Castleford, but he got frustrated with Ridgey goading him.

Ridge appeared to be a very strong character and was one of the game’s most notorious sledgers. Was he ever a problem?

He was very complex. I was given warnings of him from previous coaches. I only had one problem with him, and I sorted it out in about 30 seconds by letting him know how I felt. From then on, he was brilliant to work with. It could have been a very different situation if I let it. Understanding your players is a big thing about coaching.

You beat the Aussies in 1997, 1998 and 1999 but failed to win a competition against them.

When I got the job, a board member said I’d be remembered if I beat them once, so I’m happy with three. We should have won the 1999 Tri-Series Final. We were the better team but didn’t get the rub of the green.

But beating them three times is something I’m proud of. On top of that, I never lost to another country. It was a very successful period for the team.

The Kiwis toured Great Britain successfully in 1998. What was your opinion of the GB team and why did it underachieve?

I was confident in my players because we had good young players coming through who were getting better with every Test. We all knew how it hard it is going to England. Only two teams had ever won a Test series in the UK and the last was in 1971. We became the only ones to go unbeaten. We had so much respect for Great Britain, and I always loved watching GB as a kid, not Australia. Denis Betts, Jason Robinson, Paul Sculthorpe and James Lowes were world-class players, but we were a tight unit and we outplayed them. You become stronger on tour with every day that passes. You become a family. I’ve never experienced it anywhere else. They would die for each other.

You hammered England in the semi-final of the 2000 World Cup. Could you tell beforehand it was going to be your day?

I could tell something special was going to happen, but I didn’t quite expect 49-6. I played Ruben at lock and he said, “I’ll play anywhere you want”. That’s music to the ears of a coach. He came off the scrum and scored twice. Just on half-time, we had a penalty given to us and Daryl Halligan said he’d kick at goal. It was miles out. The crowd laughed. He put it straight between the posts and the crowd clapped him off. He’s the best goalkicker I’ve ever seen.

In hindsight, what could have been done differently in the final?

I was certain before the game that we’d win. I’d have put my house on it, especially with the weather coming in. But in the first half, all we did was tackle. We gave them too much ball. We needed 50% possession to win, but we had nothing like it. At half-time, I knew in my own mind they had spent too much fuel. They were gone. Tonie Carroll scored a try to get us back into it, and there were something like six points in it with 15 minutes left, but they blew us out of the water after that.

How did you come to leave the job?

They offered me two more years, but I’d coached the team for seven years and had the opportunity to go to Wigan. If I’d known Wigan would sack me ten games into my second season, I’d have stayed with the Kiwis.

Why did Wigan only offer you a one-year deal?

Maurice Lindsay explained they’d finished fourth in 1999. He said the players were walking around looking for sixpences – in other words, they had their heads down. He wanted me for one year to make them start playing again. I said I’d swim over. We went to Dublin for a long weekend, and I got to know every player on that trip. It was one of the happiest squads you could come across after that.

We had to win at St Helens to finish top and we won by 40. That was the best performance. We made the Grand Final, but Saints beat us. I was named Super League coach of the year. Maurice offered me another two years, but I didn’t last long into 2001. We lost to Salford by a point and that was it for me.

I understand since that a deal was made with Stuart Raper. Castleford had beaten Wigan three times in three games in 1999, and Maurice thought he was a master coach because of that, and he came in to replace me.

Was Maurice Lindsay too trigger happy with coaches and did it destabilise the club?

I liked Maurice and had a lot of respect for him, but the answer to your question is yes, he did go through too many coaches. If he’d been more patient and if Wigan had had more stability, they would have won more trophies.

Your last coaching position in England was with Widnes in 2004 and 2005.

I was called over for the last five games in 2004 to help them avoid relegation. When I looked at the games, I thought “Wow, this will be the hardest job of my life!” But we beat Huddersfield. We were expected to be hammered by Wigan, but we beat them as well. We then lost two. On the final weekend, we needed to beat Hull or have Castleford lose to Wakefield, and that’s what happened, so we stayed up. There were a lot of happy people in Widnes that night.

We had so many injuries in 2005. We went through 38 players. We were farting against thunder. I was playing kids who weren’t ready for first grade. We were stiffed because they kicked us out for finishing second last to make way for the French team. The club actually voted them in and ended up getting kicked out because of them. Widnes are a great club, and it would be great to see them back in Super League.

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