HAVING impressed at Hunslet and Bradford Northern, Kelvin Skerrett earned a Great Britain call-up in 1989 and toured with the Lions in 1990. He signed for Wigan after that tour and went on to establish a reputation with home fans as one of their all-time great forwards and with away fans as a pantomime villain. He played for Wales in 1995 and signed for Halifax in 1997.
What were your early days at Central Park like?
It took me a while to find my feet after I signed for Wigan. I struggled for six weeks or so. I couldn’t get my breath. Dr Zaman wasn’t at a game at home to Sheffield. The guy standing in for him was Roger Wolstenholme, a chest specialist. I came off after 20 minutes. I hadn’t impressed the crowd. ‘Come and see me in the morning,’ he said. He told me I had asthma. I’d never had a problem with that in my life. He tested my lungs, and I was running on a fraction of my lung capacity. I had to have ventilators at every game during my career, and I had to take them in the right order, but I don’t suffer with it now. It was just when I played.
Why were you absent from the 1991 Challenge Cup Final?
I’d missed the semi-final through suspension and then I missed the final too. I was due to go before the disciplinary, but the hearing was put back a couple of times. By the time my case was heard, my ban meant I missed Wembley. I thought that was unfair. I was distraught. I didn’t go down to the game because they didn’t need me sulking when everyone else was focusing on the game and John Monie agreed. My first Wembley was in 1992. We were told it was just another game – ‘It’s just a normal rugby pitch, don’t look up at the crowd.’ I kept my head down and played my normal game, and we beat Castleford 28-12.
You toured with the Lions again in 1992.
We scored more points than Australia in the 1992 series – just not in the right games! I got a dead leg in the first game. My leg went black, but the physio Dave Fevre got me right, and I played at Melbourne. That second Test was fantastic. The full starting pack were Wigan players. We knew how to play together, and it gave us an edge. Things went right for us that night. We couldn’t have played any better, but we lost the series and then in the World Cup Final at Wembley a few months later. I was upset to be on the bench for that, but you have to just do as you’re told. It was so close, but it went the wrong way. You sit in the dressing-room afterwards, thinking what we should have done differently, but it’s too late by then.
Twenty years on, what do you think of Mick Morgan’s infamous commentary of the 1994 Regal Trophy Final? Did you appreciate being called a “dirty get”?
Ha! Mick used to do commentaries like that for Castleford every week and they were hilarious. He’s a funny character. You could pick any game and the commentary would be similar. I thought it was funny, but on the BBC version, Ray French said there wasn’t much wrong with what I did and that it was just a bit late. None of the Castleford players ran in upset, which is a sign they didn’t think there was much wrong with it either. [Andy Hay] had said something, and we were getting beaten quite well. It looked worse than it was!
That defeat had been building from the start of the season. John Dorahy had taken over from John Monie in the summer of 1993. He had some great ideas, but coaching Wigan is more about man-management. Some people need picking up and some need putting down. John Monie had been exceptional at man management. John Dorahy just didn’t get the players. ‘Everything is going to change – forget what you’ve been taught,’ he said when he got the job. Fair enough if it’s broken, but it wasn’t. He lost the dressing room. You don’t get the best out of your team if they’re not happy.
You earned the nickname ‘SuperKel’ after an extraordinary incident in a game against Featherstone in 1994. Tell us about it.
It was quite a niggly game. I was taking a breather near the halfway line when the action was going on. I’d seen Andy Platt going down. I ran as fast as I could, and the adrenaline was going! I didn’t hit anyone. Even when I got up, I didn’t hit anyone. I meant to run into the group of players rather than over the top of them. We all got a fine for that. Then the RFL looked at it later and wanted to really punish me, but we came up with the response that if they’d already fined me, then I’d already been punished, and they couldn’t punish me twice. It worked. I never hit anyone; I just made a fool of myself!
What happened with Dean Sampson at Old Trafford in the 1994 Premiership Final, when you appeared to be elbowed in the face and were injured?
Sampson took the ball in, and it was just one of those things. If you could do that on purpose, you’d do it every week. I never moaned about it, and I told Wigan not to do anything, so I was disappointed when the club complained, because I didn’t want them to. I watched the Brisbane game on the TV. It was so upsetting to miss out. I couldn’t make the trip because they flew the next day, but I was absolutely chuffed to see them win, especially after Brisbane had beaten us in 1992 at Central Park.
Another incident we keep seeing on social media is your sin-binning at Knowsley Road in 1995.
We’d drawn with them at Central Park and got a bit lucky. We could easily have gone out of the cup. I wasn’t playing well back then. The team was a bit up and down. We’d got away with it. I knew we had to get back to what we did best, and just get stuck in. The incident was just me getting beaten up by Saints players! There wasn’t much wrong with the tackle. Those games were huge. We were in the mood that night and we won convincingly. Our style was to do the hard work in the first 20 minutes and then it’s down to who blinks first. After 20 minutes, you find out who wants to keep coming hard.
Why did you decide to play for Wales?
When it was first announced that Great Britain wouldn’t enter the 1995 World Cup, and it would be England and Wales instead, I was gutted because we had much more chance of winning as GB. That’s obvious to me because we’d have had players like Jonathan Davies. It was a mistake to dilute Great Britain. I didn’t see the point in being part of an England team that thrashed Wales, so I spoke to Neil Cowie and Martin Hall, who I was big mates with. I said I might play for Wales, although to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if it was my grandmother or great-grandmother who was Welsh, but nobody actually checked!* Anyway, Neil, Martin and I all made the decision to go for it. We won the European Championship in early 1995. We did well in the World Cup, although I remember being absolutely gutted after we lost to England in the semi-final at Old Trafford.
Why did you leave Wigan in 1996?
Even though I’m a Yorkshire lad, I couldn’t have given any more for Wigan. I still had a season and a half to go on my contract, but Jack Robinson said the club was skint and they couldn’t afford to pay me. I said I’d see the 1996 season out and then I’d leave. Warrington made an offer, and I was interested, but Alex Murphy had a managerial role there. He didn’t seem to rate me based on things he’d written about me, so I thought that would be a nightmare with him there. I lived in Yorkshire still, and I signed for Halifax, although that turned out to be a mistake. I wish I’d gone back to Bradford. Halifax offered less, but I felt they wanted me more. I broke my arm in my first year there and so I missed the World Club Championship with the Australian teams.
Graeme West is a fantastic guy. He coached me in my last few seasons at Wigan. I’ve never been under a better coach than John Monie, but I really wanted to play for Graeme. He dragged the best out of everybody, but the style changed more to ballplaying and away from the physical side of things. Maybe they felt they didn’t need me so much, but teams like that can sometimes struggle against a tough side because you still need to do the hard work first. Wigan against Sheffield at Wembley in 1998 showed that, especially in the first 20 minutes. Wigan only had one genuine prop at the start of that game.
Do you deserve your reputation?
No! The reputation is built on a few videos on YouTube that people like to watch and comment on. I didn’t get sent off that many times. What you have to remember is that Wigan had to get stuck in because everybody wanted to beat us. Our backs were absolutely world class and nobody could match them, so when Wigan got beaten, it tended to be the opposition forwards who did the damage. The best prop I played with or against was Andy Platt, who was absolutely outstanding. His strength and conditioning were perfect. He was the best player to play alongside. I also loved Neil Cowie when he played for Wigan. He was similar to me – ‘Get it sorted early!’ Another of the greatest was Karl Fairbank at Bradford Northern. He was one of the hardest guys and he never took a backward step. That’s why our jobs were so important. The real reason props like me and Andy Platt were successful was the punishment we could take, not what we dished out.
*After this interview, I checked with Trevor Skerrett, and it was Kelvin’s great-grandmother who was Welsh, meaning he was never eligible to play for Wales.
*This interview has recently been published in Richard de la Rivière’s new book, ’50 Wigan Legends in their Own Words’, which is available at totalrl.com/shop.