Rugby League Heroes: Nathan McAvoy

Nathan McAvoy debuted for Salford at 17 and before his teens were out, he had played against the Kangaroos, had helped to end Wigan’s stranglehold on the Challenge Cup and had won the European Championship with England.

After impressing in Super League with the Red Devils, he moved to Bradford, for whom he scored one of the great Challenge Cup Final tries. After a year in union, he played for Salford and Bradford again, and also for Leeds, Wigan and Leigh. 

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

Signing my first pro contract. My whole family were there to celebrate it. I was only 16 or 17 at the time. I was in college, not knowing what the future held, and it was great heading into something I loved. Garry Jack was the coach at the time, and he’s a legend in the game. 

How did you get into rugby?

My PE teacher John Bartlett was a big influence. I played in a really good school team with Adrian Morley and Carlo Napolitano. I loved the physicality and the discipline. Me and Adrian were inseparable. We were both physical, tall and imposing, but Adrian was more direct. He loved to bash his way through, and he loved to tackle. He was an enforcer and I loved scoring tries.

Which Salford players had an impact on you? 

Characters like Phil Ford and Richard Webster were big figures in the dressing room. I looked up to Dai Young and Martin Birkett, really good guys and great players. Tex Evans was a good guy to be around. Scott Naylor and I also played for Bradford and spent a lot of time together.

At 17, you faced Wendell Sailor, Andrew Ettingshausen and Allan Langer as you were selected for the Great Britain Under-21s against the 1994 Kangaroos. How daunting was that?

It was intimidating, but you either step up or you crumble. It was a real honour, and it gave me a lot of confidence to be considered at such a young age. I was only on the bench and played for about 25 minutes, but I was young and had nothing to lose. I felt I did okay and I enjoyed myself.

Salford were booted out of the top division when the game switched to summer, but the team won successive second-tier championships and knocked Wigan out of the Challenge Cup. What do you remember of that famous afternoon?

There was a lot going on, but I was happy to just go with the flow. I was too young to get into the political side of things. We finished top in 1995-96 but still didn’t get promoted. I didn’t play very well when we beat Wigan. Scott [Naylor] scored a couple of tries, and I was relieved when he got the second because we knew we’d done it then. We had a really good bunch of lads. On our day, we could beat anyone as we proved. I remember not feeling overawed by Wigan. There was an energy in the dressing room, which isn’t always there. Some days you know you’re going to win.

Later in the year, you captained the Great Britain Academy Tour, and you scored in all three Tests. How did you respond to the captaincy?

There was talk beforehand whether I’d be in the senior squad, but it didn’t happen, so maybe they gave the captaincy as a softener. I’d never captained a team before, so I spoke to Sam Panapa, a great guy who I really looked up to. He gave me some good advice. He told me to have a meeting with the players without the coaches and to let them know what was expected of them. The Junior Kiwis were huge with guys like Lesley Vainikolo, David Kidwell and Paul Rauhihi, and they won all three Tests, but we pushed them close in two of them. 

You were called up to the full squad for one tour match. What was it like to pull on a Great Britain jersey?

I can still picture being in the dressing room with Adrian. It was against the New Zealand Maoris, and it was great to be called up. It was pretty intimidating. After that game, a load of players were sent home, but we still had some Academy games to play. I have some photos of that tour. I’ll have to dig them out. 

Salford finished fifth in their first season in Super League in 1997.

We played some really good rugby that year under Andy Gregory. I was playing well and had scored something like 75 tries in 115 games. We played at the Adelaide Oval in the World Club Championship, and I scored in the game at North Queensland Cowboys. It was a fantastic trip. It was 24 degrees in Townsville, so we were all in shorts, but the locals were in coats! I remember getting in trouble. We’d played the games and had gone for a drink. We were writing on what we thought was some sort of scribble wall in a bar, but it turned out to be a shrine to all the famous people who had been in. It was a stupid thing to do, and I had to clean it off! 

Why did you join Bradford in 1998?

I felt something needed to change at Salford, but I didn’t think it was going to happen. We’d lost to Sheffield in the Challenge Cup semi-final, which was a tough pill to swallow. I knew it was time to move on, even if I didn’t want to leave my hometown club. I moved mid-season because Bradford came in and Salford needed the money. I was taken aback at the difference in the ways the clubs were run. I knew I was going to improve. 

You scored a fabulous try in the 2000 Challenge Cup Final when you chipped over Iestyn Harris. How clearly do you remember it?

Vividly! I have forgotten lots of my career, but I remember that so clearly. I’d always practised running and chipping, looking to add things to my game, and that was the moment it came off. It was instinctive, but I should have passed to David Boyle, who would have gone under the posts. It wasn’t quite a clean chip, but it came down perfectly. I remember scoring and thinking what the hell just happened. I didn’t really celebrate. If I hadn’t got injured, I would have gone for that as my career highlight. The build-up was chaotic, with the ground flooded and talk of a postponement, but they got it drained and the pitch was in fantastic condition. I’d started the game well. Then I took the ball in and saw Adrian coming at me all guns blazing. He landed on my back, and I twisted a vertebra. It completely did me in. I couldn’t walk or run. Henry [Paul] told me I’d have won the Lance Todd Trophy if I hadn’t gone off. 

What are your recollections of watching the ‘Wide to West’ try unfold?

Matty Elliott was really pissed with me because I missed a tackle during that passage of play, but everyone missed a tackle during that passage of play because Saints were just flinging it everywhere! I was on the other side of the pitch to where they made the break and scored. I was in disbelief, but that’s the sort of moment that makes the game so special.

How did a year in rugby union affect your game?

I came back older and wiser, but I had injuries. I’d played for Saracens against Bath and my hamstring snapped clean in half. Saracens tore my contract up just after I’d bought a flat down there. The docs told me if I’d had surgery to re-attach it, that would have been the end of my career. I was only 26 or 27 and wanted to keep playing. It took me 12 months to play again, and it slowed me down a lot. I struggled when I came back to Rugby League. My pride was wounded and my confidence was shot. I had to change as a player and adapt. It was a tough second stint at Salford. Karl Harrison was the coach, and he didn’t want me at the club. I spent 16 months and didn’t leave on good terms, with them sending me a letter to say they didn’t want me any more. There was no Rugby League Cares at the time, and you just had to deal with stuff like that.

2006 was an eventful year for you. What happened at Leeds and Wigan?

I thought I was playing quite well when Salford released me. I was looking to move into the second row, and I was training really hard. Brian McDermott was assistant coach at Leeds and threw me a lifeline by asking me down there. I will always be thankful for that. Tony Smith, the coach, was a hard taskmaster and said it would be tough for me to break into the team. I didn’t feel I was given the go I deserved, and after six months Tony said it wasn’t working out. Wigan came in. They were bottom of the league. Brian Noble had just taken over and signed Stu Fielden and me. I absolutely loved Wigan. Brian was different to how he had been at Bradford, and we got on really well. I scored six or seven tries at centre as we climbed out of danger and had a good end to the season. Brian wanted to sign me for two years but there were salary-cap problems, and they had an embargo placed on signing players just as I was about to sign. 

You went back to Bradford.

Steve McNamara signed me, but I struggled to score tries there. It was a different club with a different culture and atmosphere. I settled in and played some good rugby in defence and attack, but I wasn’t scoring tries. I had a good year and a half and finished at Leigh. I was 31. I’d just started as a teacher, combining that with rugby and being a dad! It was a tough time. 

How did your career-ending injuries come about?

I was scoring tries and doing well. One day against Featherstone, Jamie Field’s knee hit mine in a tackle and shattered it into pieces and dislocated it. A couple of weeks earlier, I’d played against Salford in the cold and wet, and I got a crusher tackle, and something happened to my neck. It was sore and stiff, but I played on for a couple of games. Anyway, I was in hospital with my knee, and when I complained about my neck pain, they gave me a scan. I’d just discharged myself and was waiting for a lift. The doors opened. I was confronted by doctor and nurses. They grabbed my arm and said, “Please don’t move.” I’m thinking “What the heck…?” They said I’d broken my neck. They put a neck brace on me. I just remember thinking, “I have kids. I have a wife. I have a mortgage. Where do I go from here?” Fortunately, I was on the road to a new career in teaching, so I was lucky, unlike many others. Leigh didn’t tear up my contract, and they helped me with rehab, but I wasn’t going to sign a new one. I knew I was done.