Rugby League Heroes: Paul Loughlin

WHEN Paul Loughlin intercepted Ricky Stuart’s pass at Old Trafford in 1990, it appeared that a 20-year wait for the Ashes was over. Alas, the conversion was missed, and Mal Meninga broke British hearts in the last minute. Loughlin also lost on the big stage five times at Wembley, but, as one of the best centres of the 1980s and 1990s, he is nothing short of a St Helens legend, and he was part of a Bradford side that stormed to the Super League title in 1997.

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

Making my debut at 17 for Saints against Oldham. I’d always been a Saints fan, so to play for them was a dream come true. George Nicholls and Eric Chisnall were my favourite players as a kid. Kel Coslett too. I played in the Colts at 16 and didn’t train with the first team. It was dog eat dog in those days, even in the second team. Someone wouldn’t pass the ball if you were a threat to their place. I was so nervous for that Oldham game that I forgot my boots and had to borrow some that were two sizes too big. I put an extra pair of socks on and tied the boots up as tight as I could. I couldn’t feel my feet! As soon as I came on, Saints were given a penalty, and Harry Pinner said, “Can you kick this?” “Where?” I asked, thinking he wanted me to kick for touch. “Over the f***ing sticks!” he replied. With my first touch in a Saints jersey, I kicked a goal from near halfway. My next game was against Widnes, up against Keiron O’Loughlin, Eddie Cunningham and Eric Hughes, and that was very daunting.

What are your memories of the 1987 Challenge Cup Final – your first of five defeats at Wembley?

It’s probably my favourite Wembley. Everyone blames Mark Elia for not scoring at the end, but John Pendlebury’s tackle was superb. We should have gone for a drop-goal. We had a try disallowed for a forward pass and Wilf George scored when he was probably in touch. I scored from near halfway in the second half. I’d told Barrie Ledger I’d go through, draw Wilf and put him away, but I dummied and scored myself. All the finals I lost hurt, but it was still a thrill to play in front of 100,000 fans.

One final you did win was the John Player against Leeds in 1988.

Leeds were favourites and we had a few missing. They had some class players like Roy Powell, Garry Schofield, David Creasser and Peter Jackson, but we won 15-14. I got two tries, three goals and won man of the match. Neil Holding dropped a goal and all the papers said he’d won the cup for Saints! He still laughs about that with me. I hoped we’d springboard to more success. We’d signed Shane Cooper who was one of the best players I played with, but we had the humiliation of Wembley in 1989, and we didn’t kick on as we should have done. 

Did you expect to be selected for the 1988 Lions? 

I couldn’t believe I was chosen with players like Garry Schofield, Andy Gregory and Ellery Hanley. After the John Player Final, I got picked for Great Britain against France. It was also Martin Offiah’s debut, and I put him over for a try. Steve Hampson and Joe Lydon couldn’t make the tour, which helped me. I played fullback in Papua New Guinea and stayed in the team. David Hulme and I played nearly every game on the tour. It was such an honour.

Where did the belief come from that you could win the third Test?

The build-up in training was great. We were so fit because we were training every day. As the tour went on, we’d got to know each other so well. We did a lot of video and motivational work. We knew everyone had written us off, and when we started getting on top, we all started to believe. The forwards got stuck in. There’d be about ten sent off in today’s game! Andy Greg was amazing. The Hulme brothers tackled everyone. Phil Ford was great. The two Gregorys linked up superbly for that last try. Every try was brilliant. 

What do you remember of the 1989 series win over New Zealand?

The first Test at Old Trafford was close, and it made us realise how tough they were because we thought we’d beat them 3-0. It was a wake-up call. When Steve Hampson got sent off at the start of the second Test, I went to fullback and the lads in front of me were superb. Andy Goodway went to the centres and marked Kevin Iro out of the game. That did me a favour! It was like we weren’t a man down. It was lashing it down at Wigan for the third Test. Mike Gregory got us fired up and the forwards got stuck in. I missed four goals, but we managed to win. We went for a night out in Ashton and forgot we were playing the next day. We’d had about nine pints, but I scored a try and kicked ten goals for Saints against Barrow. I got picked for the 1990 tour, but I failed a medical and needed a double hernia. I was gutted to miss that.

Can you still see Ricky Stuart throwing the pass that you famously intercepted at Old Trafford?

Yes, I remember it very clearly, but I think Malcolm still blames me for losing the Ashes for not taking the conversion. Paul Eastwood was the regular kicker, and I’d just run 50 metres for the try and was blowing out of my arse. Mal also said I should have gone closer to the posts, but Laurie Daley was chasing me down. I didn’t get picked for the third Test, maybe because Mal still blamed me. It was the closest we came to beating them in a series.

The day after Old Trafford, you played for Saints in a home win over Sheffield. Was the try John Harrison set up for George Mann by heading the ball a planned move?

I drove to the game with John, and he said Mike McClennan wanted him to pick the ball up at dummy-half close to their line and then head it forward for someone to score. I hadn’t been at training because I’d been with Great Britain. He said they’d practised it but didn’t know if it was in the rules. Anyway, Paul Bishop shouted, “It’s on!” John headed it and George Mann scored. We couldn’t believe it! John was 6’ 7”, so he had the height advantage and as a good footballer, he could head a ball, although I never expected to see him head a rugby ball! 

You went on the 1992 Lions Tour and played in the first Ashes Test.

It was a good squad with a lot of youth.  We’d played well in PNG. We started great against Australia with Andy Greg spinning the ball wide. I went off with an injury just before half-time as I struggled with adductors after my hernia surgery. That’s why I gave up kicking. I then broke my arm in a midweek game and my tour was over. I was gutted to have to come home. 

Why did Saints fall just short in the 1993 title race?

Jarrod McCracken came over and was great for us. We gave everybody a game. I still get blamed for the draw with Wigan because I missed two goals. When I was out, we lost to Leigh. Results like those cost us more. Kevin Ward broke his leg in that Wigan game and that was horrible. He was a great player. I’d helped Saints get him from Castleford because I knew he was unhappy there.

How did you feel when you were told you were going to be sold to Bradford along with Sonny Nickle and Bernard Dwyer as makeweights in the Paul Newlove deal in 1995?

It was such a shock. I’d signed a Super League contract and went into the club one day because I was trying to get a car from them. I bumped into Bernard Dwyer. “Are you getting a car too, Bernard?” I asked. “No, we’re going to Bradford,” he said. “Who is?” I replied. “Me, you and Sonny,” he said. Bernard was quite happy because he was quadrupling his money at Bradford because St Helens were hardly paying him anything. I told Saints I didn’t want to go, but they said I’d be playing in the ‘A’ Team because they had Scott Gibbs and Newy would be signing anyway. No one in the office could look me in the eye. Eric Hughes had his head down, but that’s business, and it worked out well for everyone in the end.

Did the three of you believe Bradford could be as good as they turned out to be? 

Brian Smith had us all in one on one and asked us where we’d finish. I said mid-table. He said, “Really? I think we’ll win it.” I laughed and said, “I don’t think we will!” Bernard agreed with him, so he got picked for the first few games, and I didn’t it! But they signed some great players, and we did really well. Brian said he could improve my game. I was 29, but he showed me things I hadn’t known about before.

You lost two more cup finals with the Bulls. 1996 must have hurt the most.

It did! Three Saints tries wouldn’t have stood with a video ref, but that’s life. The 1997 team was probably the best I played in. To win 20 straight games from the start of the season was amazing. But when my contract was up, they only offered me half what I was on, and I refused. They put a seven-grand fee on me and Salford, who I’d been training with, wouldn’t pay it. Huddersfield asked what I wanted. I was a bit cheeky, but they said yes.

How good a coach was Garry Schofield?

He was very good.


Yes, he told people what they needed to hear. He’d been a great player and he knew how to talk to players. His man management was good, but we didn’t have the players to compete. Then Mal Reilly came in and nothing changed. We were still losing a lot of games with him. It was only when they merged with Sheffield that things started to improve.

Swinton was your last club in 2000 and 2001.

I enjoyed it there. I’d retired, but Mike Gregory persuaded me to play and Jonathan Neill, Ian Pickavance and Phil Veivers were there. We did okay, but I’d had enough after two seasons. I got an ankle injury, which affected my job, so I knew I had to put that first. I had a season playing rugby union with Oldham, which was decent because you didn’t have to tackle! I’m still involved with Rugby League. I’m one of three coaches at Garswood Stags in North West Counties Division Three. I’ve been there eleven years and we’ve done well.