Rugby League Heroes: Graham Steadman

One of the Melbourne Lions

Graham Steadman made a name for himself as a brilliant young stand-off with York and Featherstone in the mid- to late-eighties.
A world-record fee of £170,000 took him to Castleford, where he was switched to fullback.
Despite competition from Joe Lydon, Gary Connolly, Steve Hampson and Alan Tait, Steadman was first choice fullback on the 1992 Lions Tour and only injury kept him out of the World Cup Final later that year.

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

It’s got to be the evening at Melbourne in 1992. We hadn’t had the best lead up to the game, but the team spirit was very good. Malcolm Reilly was very good at getting positive mindsets. The one standout memory is from the bus before the game. Suddenly, we saw Roy Dickinson leading a single file of about 200 British supporters, all decked out in red, white and blue. He was playing the trumpet and looked like the Pied Piper. It was brilliant to watch.
Malcolm stood up and said, “These guys have worked their socks off to raise the money to come out here. Let’s make it a memorable evening for them.”
There were at least 6,000 British fans there. We played the conditions really well. The kicking game was exceptional – we scored off kicks and the kick and chase was perfect. They made some crucial errors. As for my try, I remember big Mal (Meninga) blocking one path but then things opened up on the blind side. Andrew Ettingshausen was slightly out of position, and I managed to get in. What an incredible night!

Did you prefer playing fullback or stand-off?

I really enjoyed my time at fullback and credit must go to Darryl van de Velde for moving me from six to one at Castleford. I loved the broken-field play, the support play, and having more time to kick. It involved less tackling, and it probably extended my career by five years.

You came into the professional ranks from Knottingley rugby union. How did you find the transition?

I was lucky because I’d played Rugby League as a kid and for amateur clubs. I played for the York ‘A’ Team against Huddersfield and scored three tries and five goals. Huddersfield’s Les Sheard was impressed and offered me a contract, but in my first A-Team game for them I pulled my hamstring. When I recovered, I decided to go back to York because they’d given me my first opportunity.

York won promotion in 1985. You were crowned Division Two player of the year with 20 tries and 318 points.

We had a really good team with players like Geoff Pryce, Gary Price and Wayne Morrell, and we caused problems for defences. I was on the end of a lot because I was given a free rein.

Do you remember the awards night, rubbing shoulders with such luminaries as Ellery Hanley?

I do, as if it was yesterday! The theme music was Frankie Goes to Hollywood. I wore a light grey suit with a yellow tie – horrendous! I had a quiff. I looked older than I do now. I was a bit starstruck being in the company of players like Ellery and the other award winners, but I still have the trophy in pride of place at my mother’s house.

Tell us about the 1985-86 season. York were holding their own, but in February you were transferred to Featherstone, who stayed up at York’s expense.

York were doing okay on the field but were struggling financially. Featherstone paid 55 grand for me – a fair sum. They were ambitious. It was a bit of a gamble because Featherstone were below York, but it worked out okay in the end. We got a draw on a quagmire of a pitch at Halifax when the hooter went early. They won the league that day and we survived.

Fev were relegated following season. Were you tempted to leave?

No but your wages got cut by 50 percent if you went down – sometimes more. I had to do additional work at the sports centre to make up the money. But I wasn’t tempted to leave Featherstone because I’ve always been loyal.

You went straight back up but lost to Oldham in the Premiership Final at Old Trafford, despite your two tries.

Mick Burke was the difference that day, and Peter Walsh was an outstanding stand-off. We were dominating at the end, but their defence held firm. It was some game, but we lost by two points. But it was just great to be back in Division One and we went on to finish sixth, which was a huge overachievement. It was a breakthrough season for Paul Newlove. He was such an x-factor player who could turn a game on its head.

At the end of that season, you left Featherstone for Castleford and had a short stint in the Winfield Cup with Gold Coast Giants. How did that come about?

Part of the agreement of signing for Castleford was having a stint with Gold Coast because Darryl van de Velde knew Bob McCarthy, the Gold Coast coach. I couldn’t have picked a nicer spot. Gold Coast was a newish franchise, finding their feet. Bob Lindner and Ronnie Gibbs were the two star names. They had a very workmanlike team. Billy Johnstone was captain. I’ve never been so fit. Training was incredible.

You played stand-off opposite Wally Lewis and Ellery Hanley in your five games there.

I remember there was a biting incident in the game at Lang Park. It was a brutal local derby – all-out war for 80 minutes. I was really excited to play against Wally, but despite losing we kept him quiet. The game against Wests sticks in the memory because it was bouncing down and they had Garry Schofield and Kelvin Skerrett, as well as Ellery. I scored and it ended 12-all.
There were a lot of English players in Australia in 1989. You might have seen that promotional photo in front of the Harbour Bridge with Ellery, Garry and a few others wearing their kits. I was there, but not on the picture. Maybe someone didn’t think I was important enough to be on it!

Castleford lost a Yorkshire Cup semi-final to Featherstone in your first few months there. Did you get a good reception?

Mark Knapper scored the winning goal from touch. It was torture and he still reminds me of it! It was a mixed reception, but the majority understood my move. I’d supported Cas as a kid and Alan Hardisty was my hero, although I kept that quiet when I was at Featherstone!

The last time Great Britain or England lost to France was your Test debut in 1990. What do you remember?

Gilles Dumas was my opposite number, and he was outstanding. We just didn’t function as a unit, and we had no excuses. But it moulded me into a better player. We could have wiped the floor with them, but getting beaten makes you evaluate things, and it motivates you to improve.

Your Castleford career coincided with Wigan’s domination of the sport. How did that affect your pre-season expectations?

We always thought we could win one of the three main trophies, even though we probably knew we didn’t have the depth nor the quality of the top three. We got to Wembley in 1992 and we got the record score against Wigan in the Regal Trophy Final in 1994. But they had so much depth. They had about 20 great players. We were under no illusions.

In 1992, you were the Division One player of the year. Were you aggrieved not to win the Man of Steel as well?

Well, yes. I got the players’ player award and Dean Bell got the writers’ award and the Man of Steel. Getting the vote of my peers meant more than the writers’ award. Nowadays, the Man of Steel is a players’ vote, so I’d have won it in 1992 if it had been then.

Tell us more about the 1992 Lions Tour.

There were some great fullbacks, but I was chosen for the Test matches, which was a huge honour. Being together for 12 weeks helps you build a family atmosphere. I can call any of those players now and they will be so pleased to hear from me. It’s the same with the Lions reunions. It’s great to see everyone. You form a bond for life.
My big memory of the tour, other than Melbourne, was the Test in Papua New Guinea. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. It was a 3,000 capacity but there were up to 10,000 there. People were in trees. Branches were snapping. People were screaming. There was no regard for safety. It was so hostile. Tear gas was used, and they had to stop the game because none of the players could see. The pitch was rock hard. It was 30 degrees. That’s one game I’ll never forget.

Were you injured for the 1992 World Cup Final?

I had a stress fracture and Joe Lydon stepped in. Malcolm gave me every chance, but it wasn’t to be. The nice thing is Malcolm made me part of the squad, and I travelled with them and that showed the measure of the man. That era, right across the park, there were household names and so much class in every position. When Malcolm took the reins on, one of his major goals was to build depth and have three or four top players in every position and he’d achieved that by the time he left.

You touched on the Regal Trophy win of 1994. Tell us more.

Our coach John Joyner spoke about turning Wigan around and winning the territorial battle. They were so confident in their ability to play from deep that they would come up with errors. We got momentum and were convincing winners. The whole town went berserk. St John Ellis showed us that night he was a rapper and a DJ. There was Mick Morgan’s infamous commentary too. My partner is from Wales and when I work there, people ask, “Do you know Mick Morgan?” He’s a legend there.

How did you feel when the switch to summer and mergers were announced?

I was totally behind moving to summer. I loved playing on dry tracks, so it suited me. But I didn’t fancy playing for a team called Calder. We didn’t want to see Cas killed off and be part of a merger. Common sense prevailed, luckily.

You ended up in a relegation battle in 1997, your final season.

We lost a few players to injury, and we lacked some confidence. Every club goes through that, but we kept losing and we were at the bottom. We managed to stay up, but it was a struggle.

What happened when you coached Castleford between 2001 and 2004?

I enjoyed it, but I got the opportunity too soon. Wigan took Stuart Raper and he recommended me to Cas. I was never going to say no. I’d done some work with the Alliance team, but I was coaching players I’d played alongside. Looking back, I wish I’d had the chance two years later. I gave it my best shot. I made mistakes, but I have no regrets.

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