Rugby League Heroes: Nick Pinkney

Nick Pinkney had never played in the top flight when he represented England in the 1995 World Cup.

He started at Ryedale-York and was part of the sensational Keighley side that was denied promotion in 1995 by the unveiling of Super League.

He scored for Sheffield in their famous Wembley triumph of 1998 before playing for Halifax, Salford and his boyhood club Hull Kingston Rovers.

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

It would have to be Wembley 1998 but finding out I was getting picked for England is up there too. My generation always watched the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley because not many other games were televised. A lot of us knew it was our one and only shot at it.

Why did you begin your professional life at Ryedale-York?

Hull KR would offer local lads £500 to sign away their amateur status, but York offered me £8,000, so my dad and I decided on that. It was a great place to start, and older pros like Geoff Pryce, Steve Dobson and Stuart Horton were great to learn from. I got to play with Gary Pearce, Tawera Nikau and James Leuluai. Nikau was the same age as me, but he had a totally different mindset. The rest of us would just go out and throw a few balls around, but he warmed up like they do today.

Tell us about the 1991 tour of the Soviet Union.

It was incredible! Some people had amazing careers, but mine was so diverse, playing in all the divisions and in some amazing places. The Iron Curtain was still there, so we had the KGB following us about. The hotel wasn’t the best, but experiencing the culture was amazing. They put banquets on for us. McDonalds in Moscow had just opened and Geoff bought two huge bags of food and ate it cold for two days because he didn’t like the Russian food. We played three games, two against Fulham and one where we teamed up with Fulham and beat the Soviet Union.

Why did you sign for Keighley?

We were mid-table at York and I was coming to my peak and had just scored 25 tries in 28 games. Wakefield and Featherstone came in, but when Keighley came in, they were the most infectious group of people you could ever meet and they just talked me into it. What they had in mind sounded amazing. Everywhere else was a bit dour and not very upbeat, but Mick O’Neill and Mick Smith had no doubts about where they were taking the club.

Is Keighley where you were happiest?

Yeah, I think so. They used my attributes well. Phil Larder understood your game and he used the best of what you had. He was the best coach I had by a mile. He left no stone unturned and his attention to detail defensively was fantastic. 

How did it feel to be denied your rightful promotion in 1995 by the announcement of Super League?

It was a week after Daryl [Powell] had signed. We were certain to get promoted. It was devastating. The club had done so much and put so much money in. What people don’t understand is that the innovative ideas came from Keighley and they were lost to the game. People think Bradford started it, but Chris Caisley was in our office every day, taking notes. We gave him our ideas for free. It was so heartbreaking and we couldn’t do anything about it. The whole town felt it and things just melted away. I don’t know why it happened – maybe the two Micks rubbed people up the wrong way.

By this time you were an England player and went on to play in the 1995 World Cup. 

It was unheard of to get picked for England from the second division, but I was playing well, scoring tries and winning awards. To mix with that quality of player was incredible. When I played against France, the Wigan and Saints players were unavailable, but the World Cup was different. I looked at names like Robinson, Connolly, Newlove, Offiah, Bentley and Mather and wondered how on earth I’d get in. But I’ve always been a scrapper and I trained hard. I was on the bench for the opening win against Australia and, although I didn’t get on, I earned three grand! I played against Fiji, South Africa and Wales and was man of the match against South Africa after scoring twice. But when Gary Connolly was fit again, he came back for the final and I was an unused sub again. I couldn’t complain – if I’d picked the team, I’d have picked Gary too. The tournament was a wonderful experience but we should have won it.

Why did you join Sheffield?

Things hadn’t been the same in the last two seasons at Keighley, although we’d still been competitive. They ran out of money and sold Martyn Wood and me. It was disappointing, but it was the right time because they had to sell players wholesale to Huddersfield and Leeds after we left. I knew what to expect form Phil Larder, but the problem was Sheffield had a lot of players who were used to having a say in things. Phil expected you to accept what he said. He would show you how to improve and it was up to you to take things on board. Sheffield players couldn’t accept that. There was a mass revolt and they went to the board, who sided with the players and sacked the England coach.

John Kear took over and won the Challenge Cup, so everyone probably thinks it was the right decision, but I still say to some of the lads that they have no idea of the player they could have been if they’d listened to Phil. John was a great motivator and perfect for the Challenge Cup but Phil was much the better coach. Phil and John were very good friends but I think John did the dirty on Phil. John asked me one day who I would sign out of Dave Larder (Phil’s son) and Darren Fleary, so I said Fleary, who was clearly the better player. Phil’s one downside was he tried to take his son wherever he went. John told the board what I said and they sacked Phil. I was mortified and couldn’t apologise enough to Phil, but he did well in rugby union, so I don’t think he was too bothered in the end.

Tell us about the win over Perth Western Reds in 1997 when you scored two tries.

The Aussie teams were very strong and set-by-set co-ordinated, and very different to anything I’d experienced before. We were getting our backsides handed to us every week. Sheffield went in with a nothing-to-lose mentality. We started slowly and went 20-odd points behind, but they took their eyes off the ball and let us back in. I scored late in the first half. Marcus Vassilakopoulos came on, and the end was a miracle. Tubby [Mark Aston] put in a great kick. Greg Fleming brought it back. Vass pulled the ball out, and suddenly it was at my feet with the line right ahead of me, and that was the winning try.

How did Sheffield turn around the 1998 Challenge Cup semi-final against Salford?

Salford were a good side with guys like Andy Platt and Paul Hulme, but we fancied our chances. We needed two late tries. I made a break. Esene Faimalo was coming towards me, so I kicked infield and Tubby scored under the sticks. Then Dale Laughton scored and suddenly we were at Wembley.

For the final, did the Eagles pinpoint Jason Robinson as a weakness under the high ball? 

To a degree because we knew we’d kick to him to stop him hitting us later in the tackle count. You don’t expect a result like that after four minutes though, but they were pulled in a bit, Jason was on his own and Whetu Taewa and I attacked him. I got above him and took the catch. Time seemed to stop. I scored the try I dreamed off when I was nine. We played the perfect game. We completed our sets, kicked to the corner and just strangled them. We could see them looking at each other, not knowing how to respond.

Why did you leave and join Halifax?

I didn’t feel John knew how to get the best out of me, and it showed in my performances. Sheffield were offered Simon Baldwin and Martin Pearson for me and Beans. Halifax had just come third so it was a great opportunity. I had a good year, scoring tries all over the place, but they had financial problems. Players were going on strike, and it ended up being a nightmare. I was on about 35 grand, and they wanted me to take a ten grand cut. I couldn’t afford that and went to Salford in 2000.

What were the highlights of your time there?

We never expected to win anything, but it was very enjoyable. I want to entertain and try things and not stick to a plan, and a lot came off for me at Salford, little chip throughs and so on. I learned a lot from Martin Offiah, watching how he made a fullback stop to give him the time to beat him. Bobbie Goulding came in and things became a bit chaotic – he had a scrap with Graham Holroyd on the training field one day, for example. A few Aussies came for the cash, but Michael Hancock and Darren Brown were incredible.

Karl Harrison came in as coach. He and I never got on, which went back to him being unhappy I was in the ‘95 World Cup squad as a lower-division player. He played me and I scored tries, but he soon dropped me. He and Steve Simms weren’t doing the right things by me, so I suggested we call it a day. Hull KR offered me a job and a reasonable part-time contract. I’d gone full circle from the lad who could have signed for £500 to a signing that got loads of press coverage. I’ve followed them all my life. 

You did two and a half seasons, scoring in your last-ever game, at home to Featherstone in the 2004 play-offs.

There was a ridiculous conspiracy theory that we’d do well all year but fold in the play-offs because we didn’t want to get promoted and lose our jobs. Jon Wilkin, Paul Fletcher and Chris Charles were three players who stood out, and I wanted to help them get promoted, but the culture was all wrong. They were on the piss all the time, but it was a fantastic place to be. Things had to change, and they eventually did with Justin Morgan. 

What happened when you were on the coaching staff there?

When Harvey Howard finished playing, he convinced Nick Halafihi he was a real student of the game and to make him coach. He played a blinder there because he couldn’t coach to save his life. Harvey asked me to be his assistant. I said I didn’t have a coaching badge, but he said they’d say I was the conditioner. My day job was 7am to 5pm, so I only agreed to come if he had coaching plans in place that I could then use.  But there was never anything in place. He’d be playing darts in the office when I got there, and then he’d scribble a plan down on the back of a fag packet. It carried on for about 18 months. I was doing everything, yet he had a full-time contract. The club finally saw the light and brought in Justin Morgan. He didn’t keep me on and now I work on Radio Humberside.

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