Mark Hughes won Grand Finals with Newcastle Knights in 1997 and 2001. He signed for Catalans Dragons and in their opening-night win over Wigan in 2006, he scored the French club’s first-ever try. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013 and now focuses on his eponymous foundation, which has raised nearly $30 million.
If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
The 1997 Grand Final between Newcastle and Manly. It was my first year in first grade. We won on the bell with Darren Albert scoring. I was in a winger’s jersey, but I was playing right centre. Matty Johns attempted a field-goal. The ball came to me on the short side. On the next play, Andrew Johns dummied to me and then passed to Albie, who scored. We just hung in and hung in, and we just snuck along the line at the end. The euphoria that broke out in the Newcastle area was incredible – scenes that have never been seen again.
Did you prefer fullback, wing or centre?
I had some really good times in the centres, running outside the Johns brothers, but playing fullback got me a New South Wales jersey, which was a special moment. When I was younger, I was just slotting in. Robbie O’Davis was the fullback, but he missed a fair bit of footy at one stage, so I played there a lot.
Tell us more about Matthew and Andrew. Were you on the receiving end of any notable pranks?
It was a very lively dressing room! We had a cassette tape in 1997 with everyone’s favourite music on, and we’d be dancing in the dressing room. That summed up the whole campaign. Joey could put a ball by the corner post and kick a goal in training. Matty would always be practising his step and passing. It didn’t come as easy to him, so he practised hard. Joey also worked so hard, and that culture rubbed off on everyone else. I lived with Danny Buderus for four years. We’re all still best of mates today, and everyone stood up and helped with my charity. I used to drive Joey to training and spend a lot of time with him. In terms of pranks, I dished out as much as I took. There were some lively characters. We had a lot of laughs. Whatever you do in life, if you’re happy in your workplace, you’ll do better.
What was it like being coached by Mal Reilly?
He was intimidating to a young kid, but he had a soft touch to him. I respected him and he gave young blokes a go. He’d challenge people in training and not back down. He lived in Newcastle in later life and I became close to him and Sue. They are very special to me. Malcolm is just revered in Newcastle as the coach who brought home the first Premiership.
You also won the Grand Final in 2001. Again, you were underdogs, this time beating Parramatta. How important was the build-up?
The thing I love about English Rugby League and soccer is they are so tribal, and it’s like that here in Newcastle. The town just lifted us in the week before those finals. We just enjoyed the ride, and we really enjoyed the week. We were all close mates. To be part of something so special was amazing. I remember the Grand Final breakfast, which is a function for both clubs during the week. Parramatta’s players turned up in these black suits, and they looked so stiff. They made comments to us about being nervous. We were just having fun and laughing, and we felt that day we’ve got these boys.
Parramatta had a great young side, which had dominated the competition. Jason Taylor called the shots as an experienced halfback. We had Ben Kennedy at lock and Andrew Johns at halfback – both big-game players. They lit up, and our forwards rolled forward. Matt Parsons, Josh Perry and Steve Simpson all had great games. The forwards laid the platform, and we played the perfect half of footy. We had our hands on the trophy at half-time.
You played all three Origin matches in 2001. Although you lost the series, Peter Sterling said in commentary that you had been your team’s best player.
Sterlo was a hero of mine, and he came into the sheds, shook my hand and said I could be proud of what I’d done. It was a funny series. Queensland beat us convincingly in the first game. Then we beat Queensland very convincingly in the second game. Then in the third game, Allan Langer came back from England and had a blinder.
How did you feel when the Langer call-up was announced?
I was worried. We’d won so convincingly in the second game, so I didn’t want anything to change. Then a legend comes back and the decider was in Queensland. It only took a few minutes of the game to realise he was in the zone and he wasn’t coming back for a holiday. There were a lot of good fullbacks around, so I didn’t get another run. I had a knee reconstruction in early 2002, and I didn’t get another opportunity.
Did you think you were in with a chance of making the 2001 Kangaroo squad?
It would have been a nice ending, but I think deep down I didn’t believe I would play for Australia, and maybe that’s why I didn’t. We had some amazing people like Darren Lockyer at fullback, and some good centres. I achieved more than I thought I would have done, but slipping on a green-and-gold jersey would have been nice.
How did you come to sign for Catalans?
I had a lot of injuries in my last two seasons at Newcastle. My first 100 games were the quickest in NRL history, playing 28-30 games a year, which is a lot here. But then my body started to make some noises and I played just eight and five games in 2004 and 2005. I knew my time was going to be up. I told my management I’d like to go to England. The Catalans were forming, and Steve Deakin was a great man to be in charge at first. It seemed a great opportunity.
Steve only did the off-season, and then Mick Potter came in. I still remember the first game. I had the honour of scoring the first try and we beat Wigan, which was great. I met some wonderful friends and people, and it was a good way to finish my career. It should have been two years, but I broke my leg two or three games out, and the club was good enough to agree to release me.
What do you remember of the players?
Stacey Jones was incredible. How lucky I was to have played with him and Joey! He loved talking about Joey. They’re mates and are very respectful of each other. Stacey is a great bloke and a wonderful footballer, but he broke his arm and missed a lot of the 2006 season. Jamel Fakir was a powerful second rower. Adel Fellous was a very good front rower. Thomas Bosc had a great career, which I was very proud of. Greg Mounis was an excellent loose forward and Bruno Verges was a very good winger. They made us feel so welcome.
Seven years after your playing career ended, you were diagnosed with brain cancer. Did you have any symptoms that went back to your playing days?
No. I just had headaches for two days. I had a scan and was rushed to hospital with an avocado-sized tumour. I had surgery and was told I had high-grade brain cancer. It was a tough pill to swallow. There is no cure. I was 36 and had three children under ten.
What was the prognosis and treatment on offer?
There were no guarantees – just got to see how it goes. I have scans every four months – it used to be three. You just have to ride the waves. I meet people who don’t have the luck I’m having. We decided to do something, so we started the Mark Hughes Foundation. Outcomes hadn’t really changed, and we wanted to do something about that.
I was diagnosed in about July 2013. By March and April of 2014, we were starting the Foundation. I needed a purpose and something to think about.
How did you feel then the news went public?
It was a bit surreal reading about it in the local paper, the Newcastle Herald, who were delicate in how they wrote it up. I read it, thinking, “Wow, this is real!” I didn’t want to leave the house for a few days, but people were very supportive, and we got the foundation going.
How do you feel on a day-to-day basis?
I feel great. I have a gym where we do group training at altitude. I feel really fit, healthy and positive. I surround myself with positive people, and I train with people like the Gidley brothers, Paul Harragon, Billy Peden and Danny Buderus.
Your annual ‘Beanie for Brain Cancer’ appears to be very popular. What has it helped raise?
It is, and one day I’d love the English Super League to do the same thing, so we could raise money and awareness of brain cancer together. We raised $4m in the last Beanie for Brain Cancer four or five weeks ago. The players run out in the beanies, and the media, coaches and fans all wear them. It’s crazy. The media run stories on brain cancer throughout the week. We’ve sold around 600,000 beanies in total, and we’ve raised around $29 million in total since we started the foundation. It’s been an amazing journey. I’m a volunteer, it’s not a business. I visit schools and footy clubs to raise awareness and funds. Our Foundation runs on three or four staff and a lot of volunteers.
The Mark Hughes Foundation Centre for Brain Cancer Research has recently opened and we are committed to finding a cure and improving the lives of those affected by brain cancer. Everyone will benefit when a cure is found, so it would be great for people in England to get behind us and buy a beanie from our website. It’s a very special thing my wife, Kirralee, and I have created. I look afar and see the Rob Burrow story and get emotional. Rugby League is a great sport that gets behind people when they need it.
* To buy a beanie, please visit https://shop.markhughesfoundation.com.au.
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