Welsh icon and a Rugby League evangelist
One of the great characters of the 1970s, Mike Nicholas was a hugely talented cross-coder who performed with distinction for Warrington.
For over 30 years he has championed the development of the sport in Wales and was a driving force behind three professional clubs – Cardiff Blue Dragons, South Wales and Celtic Crusaders – whilst also managing the national side to European Championship success and two World Cup semi-finals.
Nicholas is in the Warrington Hall of Fame, he has been added to the Rugby League Roll of Honour and was awarded an MBE in 2020.
If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
Warrington must have been in about 13 finals in my time there, and they were all great experiences. But the obvious one is scoring the decisive try against Featherstone at Wembley in 1974, although that day came at a price because I broke my jaw with 20 minutes left and I did my cruciate with two minutes left.
I had to pull out of the Lions tour, and it also meant I couldn’t go to Manly later in the year. I was never quite the same player after the injury. I used to be a running forward but became more of an enforcer. I have the sending-off stats to show for it!
What are they?
I was sent off 17 times in Rugby League, including in testimonials and friendlies. Three of them included Jimmy Thompson, and he was only sent off five times in his career. And, yes, one involved Jim Mills. He was the toughest guy of my era. He slugged it out with Arthur Beetson and all the Aussie greats.
One of my favourite memories of Jim is a Lancashire Cup game when he was at Workington. I got him that day and his face was a mess. A few days later we were in camp together with Wales and Jim turned up with a huge cut on his face. Neither of us said a word but a few of the lads took the piss. As someone came in to measure us up for kit, Jim pointed in my direction and said, “Measure him up for a coffin, would you?”
Congratulations on the MBE that you’ve just received.
Thank you. I received it a couple of weeks ago and it was a wonderful day. I’d been waiting 18 months because of Covid. It was at Windsor Castle because Buckingham Palace is closed. You used to be allowed three guests, but it’s now just one. Princess Anne presented it, which made for a nice rugby connection.
How did your code switch come about?
I grew up in the ‘fifties watching Billy Boston on a black-and-white TV, and I had a sense Rugby League would one day be my game. My last game of rugby union was in Selkirk in the Borders. Warrington were playing Wigan, so on the way home, I went along and caught up with a couple of the ex-union players. They introduced me to Murph, and he persuaded me to hang around for a few days and go training with them. And then I signed.
There’s quite a connection between Aberavon and Warrington. They were both formed in 1876. Warrington’s original colours were red and black. They have also produced some great Rugby League players like Kel Coslett and Johnny Ring, the great Wigan try scorer from the 1930s. Regan Grace came from the same route too and I helped get him up north.
Is it true that Sir Anthony Hopkins was your milkman?
Not quite. His father was our baker and my uncle worked for him, driving the van. Anthony used to come in most mornings for a cup of tea. As well as that, Richard Burton used to come to Aberavon games when I played for them, and he used to bring Liz Taylor to away games in London.
Who were the best players when you were at Warrington?
We had a very successful era and I joined at the right time. The ‘74 team was outstanding, winning four trophies. Tommy Martyn was my rugby soulmate and an outstanding forward. John Bevan was a great try scorer. Fullback Derek Whitehead won the Lance Todd. Pound for pound, the best loose forward around was Barry Philbin. Kevin Ashcroft was an excellent hooker. David Chisnall, our prop, used to dummy defenders with his belly, then he’d shoot through a gap. Then there was the great Alex Murphy. I was lucky to play with or against the greatest Rugby League player in Alex and the greatest union player in Gareth Edwards.
Alex was the better player, surely?
You want me to choose between Alex and Gareth? I’m not getting drawn into that! I’ll just leave it that I played with or against the two best players from both codes. They were both fantastically talented.
What do you remember of Warrington beating Australia 15-12 in 1978?
I hadn’t played for five weeks because of a broken hand. I turned up to the ground direct from the hospital. John Bevan didn’t play, nor did a few others, so I was talked into playing. I got buried by about five of them right from the kick-off, including Rod Reddy. I was at prop, marking Craig Young, and I knocked him about a bit. It was a great night, which will always be remembered in Warrington.
You won six caps for Wales – three each against England and France. What were the highlights?
I always seemed to be injured for Wales matches. I went on the 1975 World Cup tour and scored a couple of tries against Canterbury and Wellington, but I hadn’t fully recovered from the year before. We beat England at Leeds in one game, and we beat France at Widnes. But one that sticks out is beating the French in 1975 at Swansea in front of over 20,000 fans. It was the first international in Wales for nearly 25 years, and it was a magnificent experience.
Tell us about the Cardiff Blue Dragons club, who you co-founded in 1981 and played for.
That came about through Dai Watkins. Cardiff City had new sponsors and were looking to utilise the ground. They signed Paul Ringer, Steve Fenwick and Tommy David – some of the players from the golden era of union. George Nicholls and Tony Karalius were big names from up north who came down. We nearly beat Salford in the first game in front of a big crowd. We got our act together and started picking clubs off, but the guy involved [Bob Grogan] died and things became precarious, moneywise. They moved to Bridgend but folded after a couple of years in 1986.
A club called South Wales played in the third tier in 1996. What happened to them?
We got absolutely shafted, that’s all I’ll say. Maurice Lindsay told me there was a Super League place if we could get a team together. The sponsor was prepared to put in £1.2 million, but he got nicked off us by a northern club. We’d have played at Cardiff Blues’ stadium for next to nothing. Instead, we were put into the third division and without that sponsorship, we were up against it. The initial funding for teams in that division was soon cut, and it looks like history is repeating itself now.
The national team was growing ever stronger despite the lack of a club in the professional ranks.
In the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties, we were asset stripping rugby union with players like Jonathan Davies, Paul Moriarty, Allan Bateman, John Devereux, Kevin Ellis, Adrian Hadley and many other galacticos switching codes. We had a really strong team. I was looking for an opportunity to get back into sport. I had transport businesses – garages, taxi ranks etc. Jim Mills was the manager against Papua New Guinea in 1991, and I came on board in 1993 when we played New Zealand.
What were the highlights?
I’ll never forget playing the 1994 Kangaroos. It was brutal! Iestyn Harris made his debut and was as cool as a cucumber. I’ve never seen anything like the Devereux-Meninga incident. John’s chin came away from his head. It was broken inside 4 places. After another incident, I could see inside Dai Young’s skull and Kevin Ellis looked like a panda with his two black eyes. Bob Fulton, the Australia coach, wanted to sign Scott Gibbs afterwards. We may have lost 46-4, but it was a hell of a battle.
We won the European Championship in 1995 for the first time since 1938. We had a very good team, and we went to the World Cup with a lot of confidence. Our win over Samoa at a packed Vetch was the game of the tournament. But we had a short turnaround before the semi-final against England when we took 10,000 to Old Trafford. We got record viewing figures on Welsh TV. Martin Offiah’s tries wouldn’t have counted with a video ref, and the game would have been on a knife edge. Rugby union went open in 1995, so their players no longer came over and some went back.
Then there was the 2000 World Cup semi-final with Australia when we were winning after nearly an hour. Iestyn created a two-on-one with Anthony Sullivan on Wendell Sailor, who deliberately knocked it on. That would have been a penalty try in union, but in league just a scrum. It would have put us three or four scores ahead. Imagine if we’d held on! It would have been the biggest upset in world sport since Ireland beat the West Indies at cricket in 1969. We had a great group of players, and off the back of that World Cup came the Welsh Conference. Many Welsh players are more suited to league than union with their skillset. It’s annoying to have someone like Morgan Knowles, only to see him switch nations and play England instead.
Do players like Knowles make that move because Great Britain was scrapped?
Correct! It’s incredible that so few people can see that when the Great Britain team was done away with, all the best players would just go to England, who basically got the Great Britain fixtures and all the funding. Cutting Great Britain really set the Wales team back. And it’s not just the ones who switch from Wales, Scotland or Ireland to England, it’s the ones who don’t play for us at all, but they would have done under the old system. I don’t blame the boys, but Ben Flower is someone whose lack of a contribution disappointed me. Gil Dudson is another who has rarely been available and it’s disrespectful.
Your next project was Celtic Crusaders.
It’s like headbutting a dam. You’ve just got to keep at it. That was probably the most promising one. Chris O’Callaghan drove it. Leighton Samuels came on board as well. It was going well, and we got into Super League, but it came down to funding again. You saw it with Toronto even with a guy with a lot of money. The French sides are great for the game, but it’s a shame there isn’t a Welsh side there still.
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