Rugby League Heroes: Jason Critchley

A Lions tourist in 1996, Jason Critchley played also played international Rugby League for the Great Britain Under-21s, England and Wales. At club level, he turned out for Widnes, Salford, Keighley, Castleford, Wakefield and Whitehaven.

A year ago, Critchley couldn’t swim, but last month he swam the English Channel to raise funds for a charity called Head for Change, which raises funds and awareness for players from both codes of rugby who are suffering with brain injuries such as CTE and dementia.

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

The World Cup semi-final against Australia in 2000. The attitude in the Wales camp was that we had nothing to lose. We knew they were human and they bled like the rest of us. We’d watched New Zealand massacre England the day before, and we knew that wouldn’t happen to us. Our squad had been decimated by injury before and during the competition, but the greatest upset in history was on the cards in that second half! I was a Leicester Tigers player at the time of that World Cup, but our coach Dean Richards was a brilliant guy who had no problem with me playing. The spirit in that Welsh side was amazing, and we produced a similar performance against England in 2001. Bill Arthur asked how we did it, and I said, “When you pull the red shirt on, miracles happen!”

You debuted for Widnes in the same month they became world champions. What do you remember of your time at the Chemics?

It was daunting. You had to earn your spot in the first-team dressing room, but I was confident in my own ability, and I played a number of games in that 1989-90 season. I became comfortable in that environment, but I didn’t have the size to live with the physicality of the game in the late 1980s – and I was a backrower then. The difficult part was being in and out of the side, but it was good schooling for later in my career.

Tell us about your Under-21’s appearance in January 1990.

I remember coming off the bench. I think four French players got sent off or sinbinned by Colin Morris. I tried to play the ball and a French player spat in my face. All hell broke loose, with a brawl that Colin had to break up. It was a crazy game.

Why did you join Salford?

Widnes told me my contract wouldn’t be extended because they didn’t think I’d make it as a professional player. But within six months, I was playing for England against Wales, and it was a star-studded England side. I came on as a sub for Martin Offiah. One side of my family is English, the other is Welsh, but the rules were different then. Now I’d have probably just chosen Wales, but you had to be born in Wales then, and I was born in St Helens.

Can you pick a highlight of your Salford career?

The game I remember the most was a Regal Trophy replay at Batley when Garry Jack was the coach. It was the coldest night imaginable. There was 20 tons of sand on the pitch. I took in the first drive and went straight into a huge pool of water. I went back to the wing and was freezing. We all stood under the showers in the communal bath after the game, passing the brandy around to warm up! We had an Australian forward called Chris Tauro who got hypothermia.
I remember scoring a couple of tries in a win over Leeds when their centres were Iro and Innes. I was lucky to play with some great players. Tex Evans was my winger, and he was superb for me because he worked his nuts off. Nathan McAvoy was very good, and so were many others, like Martin Birkett, John Gilfillan and Peter Williams.

Salford were denied a place in Super League despite not being relegated in April 1995. Why did you then move to Keighley who had also failed to make the cut despite finishing top of Division Two?

I knew I was going to leave Salford a couple of months earlier. I signed for the Western Reds in Australia on a short-term basis. It was always a dream to go to Australia because we’d watch Winfield Cup tapes when I was a kid and I loved them. I could have gone to Balmain in 1992 or 93. Peter Mulholland, God rest his soul, was the coach, and he came and sat in my house when we did the deal. I played reserve-grade games and then the whole team would be subs for the first-team game, which was straight afterwards, but I never got on. BJ Mather, Craig Innes, Daio Powell and Brendan Tuuta were there. My wife was incredibly homesick, so we came back, and I signed for Keighley. There was a real buzz about the club that really attracted me. Cougarmania was so different. I loved every single day. Phil Larder and the coaching staff were brilliant and so were the directors. I really bought into it. Career wise, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The place was absolutely bouncing every game. We had a very good side with players like Daryl Powell, Nick Pinkney, Andy Eyres, Martin Wood, Darren Fleary and Jason Ramshaw.

The Cougars had a great rivalry with Salford, whom you had just left. I remember you all upsetting Andy Gregory with the Cougar Crawl after winning at The Willows.

We felt we would gain promotion. If we’d had a fully fit squad, we’d have won the comp in 1996 to get promoted, but injuries killed us in both seasons. That game at The Willows was my first game back. I was headbutted off the ball. I broke my eye socket and cheekbone and collapsed in the car park. I still have the plates in my face now. There was a big rivalry, and we played well and won the game. We did the crawl after big wins. They’d done that for a couple of years. We took about 3,500 fans. The old Kop at the Willows was jammed full of Keighley fans that night. But we didn’t have Salford’s depth, and with seven or eight players out, we were decimated. To be fair to Salford, they did deserve to get promoted because they had the depth we didn’t.

What do you remember of the 1996 European Championship decider for Wales against England?

I nearly had a fight with Gary Connolly, which made me laugh because we’d been mates since we were 11 years old. I ran round Jason Robinson to score, which was pretty surreal! I didn’t play in the 1995 World Cup because of my eye-socket injury, so 1996 was my Welsh debut. Iestyn Harris scored three tries in France, but it was typical of Rugby League planning that the decider clashed with England against Germany in Euro ’96!

You were then selected for the Lions Tour. With so many high-profile backs unavailable, when did you think you might have a chance of selection?

I got an inkling the week before we played Hull in the Premiership semi-final. After the final, I got the news I was in. I’d dislocated my thumb against Hull and just didn’t tell anyone. It was the biggest honour ever to get into a Lions squad. I was in the midweek team. I was nowhere near the Test team. I played three tour games, scored in Fiji, and then smashed my knee, and my tour was over. I remember being bussed into the ground and back out again in Papua New Guinea. We had to run to the bus, and we left Ray French behind. I can still see him waving at us to stop!

You were one of a dozen players sent home to save money on hotel bills. What was the feeling among the departing players when it was announced?

I was going home anyway, but the way that was handled was appalling. I was already booked to fly home the next day, so I flew home by myself. I had a smashed-up knee, and I had to fly home myself by economy class. Luckily, I had an empty row of four seats to rest my leg on. The other players were shellshocked. To be sent home from a Lions Tour as a cost-cutting measure is unprecedented. It’s embarrassing. Even the boys who stayed were furious about it. You’re one big squad. It’s unthinkable these days that that would happen.

Why did you join bottom-placed Castleford a couple of months into the 1997 season?

Keighley hit financial troubles and had to get rid of players. I was probably on the biggest contract after Daryl. Keighley had paid £100,000 for me and sold me for £35,000 and Adrian Flynn. Castleford had a rich history and I loved their style of football. I was Stuart Raper’s first signing. He’d sent scouts to watch me play for Keighley at Wakefield and I scored a hat-trick. I was young and fit and had nothing to lose. I absolutely loved my two seasons there. We played in the World Club Championship, which was a great trip for team bonding and for Stu to get his ideas across. The most memorable win was probably when Andy Schick scored in the dying seconds in the Challenge Cup against Leeds at Headingley. We celebrated that for about two days. Then we beat Bradford and were drawn against Sheffield in the quarter-finals. We thought we were going to Wembley. Keith Senior punched BJ Mather, and that was the turning point. He stayed on and scored two tries. We were too complacent on the day. That was the nearest I got to Wembley! That is the one missed opportunity in my career that I regret the most.

Tell us about the Big Rugby Swim.

The charity is called Head for Change, which seeks to make both codes of rugby safer and educate young players and their families about what they’re getting involved in. The swim was six ex-union players against six ex-League players. A few who did the swim have CTE [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy] now. They have some terrible stories to tell. Sky did a fantastic documentary on it called ‘Rugby Concussion – Turning the Tide’, which is still on their YouTube channel. When I was asked to do it a year ago, I couldn’t swim a single stroke, and I was a little overweight compared to now. I had three months of diet and exercise, learned to swim and then we swam the Channel in October. They said you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, but I am proof you can! The other ex-League players were Denis Betts, Mick Cassidy, Cliff Eccles, Mickii Edwards and Kevin Brown. It’s the best thing I’ve done in all my life. The people I did it with are incredibly special human beings. I had an eventful October because I then went to Italy to watch my son Ethan compete in the World International Karting Championships.

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