Rugby League Heroes: Lee Crooks (Part 1) – Great potential only partly fulfilled

One of the great ball-playing forwards of the 1980s and 1990s, Lee Crooks represented Hull, Castleford and Great Britain with distinction.

He captained the Black and Whites at 21, leading them into three Challenge Cup Finals.

He played in five Ashes series and impressed in three seasons in the Winfield Cup.

After a mixed time at Leeds, he rolled back the years at Castleford before ending an 18-season career in 1997. This is the first of a two-part interview.

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

There are a few to choose from, like playing at Wembley four times and the 1982 replay, but I’ll go for two others.

Having been a massive Hull FC supporter, I signed for them on my 17th birthday in September 1980. I didn’t think I was good enough prior to signing, but when I started training with everyone, it felt so comfortable, and my mindset changed completely. I fitted in well and I knew it wouldn’t be as hard as I thought it would have been. I made my debut in November against Salford.

The other is the 1994 Regal Trophy Final for Castleford against Wigan, which was the only time I remember everyone giving one of their best performances. We were massive underdogs. We trained with the perception we’d just give it our best shot, but I thought we could win. We had some real quality – especially the three Kiwis Richie Blackmore, Tawera Nikau and Tony Kemp. Martin Ketteridge was outstanding and got the man of the match. Grant Anderson and Mike Ford were superb. Ian Smales and Tony Morrison played really well in the backrow. Singe (St John Ellis) and Simon Middleton on the wings and Steady (Graeme Steadman) at fullback were all quality too. We had a lot of personalities in the group, and we all played as well as we could have done.

Mick Morgan’s commentary of that game went viral. You must have enjoyed being called “The best prop in the world – never mind anybody else!”

Ha – yes, it was nice, and it was an emotional moment for Mick. He would probably get locked up if he commentated on games now! I still receive compliments, which are very humbling, but when I look back at my career, I could have achieved a lot more. There were reasons I didn’t that I’m now coming to terms with. But it is very humbling when people put you up on that sort of pedestal.

Was there too much of a drinking culture then?

Yes, but that’s not the full story of why I didn’t achieve what I could have done. I’m a mental-health ambassador now, and that has made me question a lot of things.

I used to wonder why the likes of Garry Schofield, Daryl Powell and Adrian Morley all won twice as many caps as I did. I got 19.

The truth is I was struggling with many things. I didn’t just sign for Hull as a teenager, I also got married. It seemed the right thing to do, but it wasn’t. I was brought up in an adult world. I had to look after my brother at 13. My dad was a long-distance lorry driver, and my mum struggled with her mental health, as well as having two jobs.

I knocked around with older kids. I got together with my girlfriend at 16, and she was older than me. I missed quite a bit of my childhood.

By 21, I was captain of Hull and I had two children. I also worked as a painter and decorator with Arthur Bunting. I didn’t mind the pressure the rugby brought. I revelled in that.

But I was struggling.

Back then, you didn’t talk about your emotions. That was a sign of weakness. You had to just grow a pair. I didn’t drink with the players at first. I just had pop.

When I did start drinking lager, Knocker Norton told me I’d have to be the best in the club if I was going to drink or people would use it against me. The pressure of fatherhood at such a young age was taking its toll.

At the back of my mind, I felt undermined by (wife) Janet, who treated me like a kid because she was older than me. She didn’t mean to do it, but it was a problem.

How did it come to a head?

We got divorced in 1986 and then in 1987 I went to play for Balmain. I started seeing Knocker’s sister, Karen, who is my second wife.

I still had all this crap in my head about what had happened in the past and it stayed there, dormant. The rugby side of things was great. I only played a few games, but I did well, including in a semi-final in the midweek cup.

But I got a phone call to say I had to come back and sign for Leeds. That was the end of the world for me. I didn’t want to sign for them.

Eventually I did, but I went on a two-week bender. It was all the stress coming out of me. That was my coping mechanism. I had no security, no other coping mechanism and no one was talking to me. As long as I had rugby, I was okay. When I didn’t have the rugby, I was lost.

I played really well in my last year at Leeds, having been challenged by Malcolm Reilly to play well and earn a new contract. But Leeds didn’t stay true to their word. I started drinking again. I then signed for Cas. Darryl van de Velde sat down with me and told me I clearly had problems, and that I wasn’t the player I should be. I told him everything. I split up with Karen, then got back with her, then she was pregnant with my second daughter, Megan. He sent me away for a couple of weeks to sort my head out. I played some of the best rugby of my career after that, because someone had taken the time to talk to me.

You might be disappointed with 19 caps, but you did play in five Ashes series. What are your memories, particularly of the tours?

When I look back at my Tests against Australia, I played twice in 1982, once in 1984, three in 1986, none in 1988 as I got injured – I shouldn’t have gone on that tour. I probably only did because Malcolm was the Leeds coach. I didn’t play in 1990 either. In ‘92 I only played in the first.

The demands of touring were tough. In ‘84 and ‘88 I came back injured. I’d redeemed myself by ’92, but some people were surprised I was picked because Wigan had that great pack. I played against Papua New Guinea, and I was probably as fit as I’d ever been. I was chosen against Illawarra on the Monday before the first Test, which was on the Friday. I got man of the match, although [former team-mate] Steve Roach was the judge.

Anyway, I’d done enough done to get picked for the Test, but we got beaten and I got dropped. I took it quite badly. I asked Malcolm why he’d dropped me. He said I’d missed too many tackles, but I’d played the full 80 on the Monday and then 80 in the Test because Ian Lucas went off early. I dropped off Mal Meninga a couple of times in the second half, but I was absolutely knackered.

I flipped because I wasn’t used to getting dropped. Apart from once at Hull, it had never happened to me at club level. I took it the wrong way. But Malcolm hedged his bets, and he made the right decision because we won the second Test.

Was it tough for you watching the team win so handsomely in Melbourne without you?

It wasn’t the best feeling. I was sat on the bench next to the subs. I was overjoyed because we were winning, but at the back of my mind I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t out there. It was a bittersweet moment. The lads had a drink at the hotel, but I went straight to bed. It must have affected me if I turned down free beer.

As much as I got knocked back, I got up again, and I came back into the team against France in 1994. We’d just won the Regal Trophy, so I got back in. I ended up runner-up in the Man of Steel to Jonathan Davies.

When I look back, I’m not as stressed now. I’m glad I’ve done the ambassadorial role, because it answered some of the questions I had buzzing around in my head and I can help younger players who need it. The stigma is still there and there’s a ruthless financial element to the game now.

This is my 41st year in the game in some capacity. I went ten years without anyone talking to me about my problems. If I can do anything to help with mental health, especially with lockdowns, then great.

You said in your book that the British game reacted too negatively to the Australians thrashing us in 1982. Does it frustrate you that today’s forwards don’t offload?

We always had players who wanted to offload the ball, but we ended up with coaches who didn’t want to play like that.

We got mullered in 1982. We held our own in 1984, but we still got beaten. From 1982 to 1986, the game was free-flowing. Play what you see. Support play. Then the influx of Australian coaches started to change the way we played.

Suddenly, it was all about field position and getting to parts of the field after whichever tackle. “Get here, then you can attack,” was the new attitude. It was safety first.

There was a big focus on defence, which was fair enough because we hadn’t done that enough. But we then didn’t have the intelligence or skill levels to break defences down and the diminishing quality of our halfbacks compounded that. Topliss, Myler, Gregory and Briers were all great players, but the role was changing, and halfbacks stopped grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck.

When the game started to get structured, it was all about getting to a certain part of the pitch and not playing what you see. That’s the reason the offloads have stopped, and players now don’t bother to support the ball carrier. The lack of support for players who I know can offload is frustrating. But some teams can still do it, like St Helens.

Part 2: Crooks talks more about his time at Hull FC, his spells with Western Suburbs and Balmain Tigers and gives an insight into why great players sometimes struggle as head coaches. Read it here.

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