Rugby League Heroes: Phil Clarke (Part 1)

Having firmly established himself as one of the world’s best backrowers, Phil Clarke’s playing career ended prematurely in 1996 when, aged 24, he broke his neck playing for Sydney Roosters.

Before that he had already won six league titles and five Challenge Cups at Wigan. He played 16 times for Great Britain, captaining them once, and six times for England. He was selected at loose forward in the 1993 World XIII.

This is the first of a two-part interview.

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

I have been a player, team manager, chief executive and commentator, but at heart I’m a fan, so I’ll choose a game I once attended to sit in the crowd. I was almost 14 and travelled to Wembley on the train with friends to watch the 1985 Challenge Cup Final between Wigan and Hull FC.

My dad, Colin, was the co-coach of Wigan along with Alan McInnes. I’d never experienced anything like it. I was stood high up in the ground in what felt like a modern-day Colosseum.

The game contained my all-time favourite try, scored by Henderson Gill. It was an example of a team willing to attack from their own half, quite rare today with the obsession of field position. Wigan’s right centre positioned himself inside the left centre, creating more attackers than defenders. The try had a combination of risk, skill and speed, with some suspense added too because you didn’t know if Gary Kemble would stop Gill as he scorched down the left touchline. Hendy managed to get past him and the smile on his face at the end was the perfect way to finish it off.

If I was given 30 seconds to sell the sport to someone who had never seen it before, that would be the action I’d present.

Tell us about the Schoolboys final you played in at Wembley.

The organisation and planning of the Wigan Schoolboys’ trip to Wembley in 1982 was as good or better than any trip with Wigan or Great Britain later in my career. Teachers like Ray Unsworth, Dave Mallin, Mick Mullaney and many others made it run so smoothly. In fact, a lot of Wigan’s success in the 1980s and 1990s was down to the quality of coaching in the Wigan schools and junior clubs in the decade that had preceded it.

Playing at Wembley was an unbelievable experience. The tunnel leading to the pitch was quite steep and you could hear the sounds before you could see the pitch or crowd. It played with your senses until you saw this magnificent arena in front of you. I ran 60 metres and dived in to score at the corner, but I had put a foot on the touchline one step short of the try line. The touch judge raised his flag and I felt like bursting into tears.

As a student at Liverpool University, how were you accepted into the Wigan dressing room?

Pretty well! It was a highly competitive environment, and you were welcomed if you were willing to work hard. I am grateful to John Monie, who would organise training times around my lecture times.

There was an unofficial mentoring programme that took place at Wigan. A senior player would ‘adopt’ a younger one. Andy Goodway looked after Denis Betts, and I was very lucky that Ged Byrne took me under his wing. In my uni holidays, I even worked with Ged, cleaning windows.

What do you remember of your time in the Alliance team, and how much of a loss has the reserve grade been to Rugby League?

They were my happiest days playing rugby because there wasn’t the same pressure or seriousness as in the first team. The best game was a Lancashire Cup Final at Central Park on a Friday night against Widnes, with a crowd of almost 3,000. It was high quality and fast. If you did well in that game, you knew that you had a good chance of playing in the first team.

I‘m really sad that there isn’t any second-team Rugby League now, although I understand the financial arguments. It’s a tragedy young players aren’t getting the chance to play, and I feel very sorry for them.

What are your sharpest memories, good or bad, of your Wigan career?

Getting knocked out trying to tackle Kevin Ward at Knowsley Road one day. I woke up ten minutes later, thinking that I needed to improve my tackling technique.

I also remember being frustrated in one game because I was determined to score more tries – I thought it was a weakness I needed to work on. We played against Leeds and Martin Offiah was scoring all these tries.

I fell out with him in the match because I felt that he should have passed to me when he made a break. That was the day he scored ten tries, so I soon realised my place.

Ellery Hanley was ahead of you in the loose-forward pecking order. Was he a positive influence on your career?

The first time I saw him play live was at Odsal when Wigan went there in March 1985 for a Challenge Cup quarter-final. Wigan won 7-6. Brett Kenny played for Wigan, but Ellery was by far the best player on the pitch. Everyone in the ground held their breath every time he touched the ball.

When he was at Wigan he often heaped praise onto his team-mates. We sometimes forget what a huge star he was in this country. He even appeared on Wogan, which had millions of viewers, when he signed for London Monarchs. He was huge for Rugby League.

Which other players stood out for you?

Andy Gregory was the Diego Maradona of Rugby League because he was such a star on the field and a big character off it. He was the sharpest, wittiest person I’ve ever met. You had to have a tough skin to deal with his put downs, but he did make people laugh.

Like Ellery, Shaun Edwards was very focused with a great competitive spirit. His will to win has made him successful, as he was possibly not as naturally talented as some other players. Those two set the tone for Wigan being so successful for so long.

Kelvin Skerrett doesn’t get many mentions, but he was a great team man, and I loved his company. Then there’s Andy Farrell. Look at his incredible performance against Brisbane in 1994 when he was just a teenager. My closest friend was Denis Betts, who I am still very close to today.

You and Denis spoke in 1995 of needing a greater challenge when you left Wigan for the Winfield Cup. Was winning becoming less enjoyable?

I like a challenge and needed a new one. When the final hooter sounded at Wembley it was becoming more of a relief than an explosion of joy. The pressure and expectations had grown exponentially as each year went by. Walking up for your medal wasn’t as exciting as the first time. I left because I wanted to experience the thrill of winning as an underdog again.

What are your memories of the 1990 and 1992 Lions Tours?

I loved going to Papua New Guinea and have been five times. It’s a great life experience. Some Super League clubs do warm-weather training camps, but I’d suggest a trip to PNG would be a much better experience than training in a four-star hotel in Lanzarote.

The first Test in Australia was amazing – the fastest game of my life. Martin Offiah had two chances to score down the left wing, but Andrew Ettingshausen just about pushed him into touch twice. In the second Test in Melbourne, I was lucky with my dummy and I scored the first try. Scoring first is important for us because defending a lead as underdogs is easier than coming from behind.

Before the third Test, I got food poisoning from a seafood restaurant and lost 10lbs, so I didn’t perform as I could have. We lost 16-10, but the Aussies always seemed in control.

Why did we come up short in the 1992 and 1995 World Cup Finals?

Playing in front of 73,000 fans at Wembley in 1992, all cheering us, on was a childhood dream. Australia were the more skilful side, and their passing plays were better than ours. Andy Platt and Kevin Ward played so well, and Malcolm Reilly was outstanding in the build-up as our coach. Deryck Fox kicked brilliantly. As a halfback kicking today, he’d be right up there for accuracy and effectiveness. We had a man sinbinned early in the second half. We held on for those ten minutes, but it left us a bit flat in the last quarter.

In 1995, I made a mistake from a kick-off after England had gone 2-0 in front, and Rod Wishart scored a minute later. When I wake up from dreams, they’re often about me making mistakes, and that one is right up there, although Wikipedia blames Andrew Farrell for the error.

When Shaun Edwards was sent off at Wembley in 1994 against Australia, did your belief that we could win waver? What did Ellery say at half time?

Firstly, without Jonathan Davies, we don’t score that try. He was a world-class player. He was small, but quick, tough and durable. People tried to hurt him, but few managed to make a dent.

It was going to be hard to beat Australia with 13 men on the pitch, so with 12 it felt like Mission Impossible. I don’t know if we were even that confident before the game. But Ellery’s half-time speech was the best I have ever heard. I don’t recall every word or sentence, but the tone and the essence were perfect. He was utterly convinced that we would win and infused that belief into us all.

What was it like to captain Great Britain in the second Test in what could have been an Ashes-winning match?

It was the best and worst memory of my career. I did let my mind wander during the week and started to imagine winning with me as captain. All my family were there. It was a huge thing, but we got hammered 38-8. It was such a crash back down to earth. Looking back, I can see how that sort of encapsulates the highs or lows of sport.

*Next week, Clarke discusses coaching in South African townships, life with the Sydney Roosters, the injury that ended his career and moving into broadcasting.

Click here to read part two of this Q & A

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