More than 20 years before Rangi Chase, Jack Reed and Chris Heighington, you were an Australian picked in a Great Britain squad..
“Yeah, way back in 1990, I was approached by the Rugby League over here and asked if I’d make myself available. I think that was before they even realised I did have a British passport. There was soul-searching and all that. I had a lot of hard decisions to make. In the end, I made myself available … and didn’t get picked! So that was a pisser!”
Did you ever find out why? Was it the coach who didn’t want Australians in the side?
“Mal Reilly, yes. And the other bloke, Phil Larder. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, me and Phil. He was one of the main reasons I left Widnes at the same time. Phil Larder is one out of the Brian Smith mould – ex-school teachers, never done anything in the game themselves and tried to put their school teacher mentality into coaching techniques. I didn’t like it. I had Brian Smith to thank for sending me over here. I took the opportunity to leave Illawarra and go onto pastures greener. He ripped the shreds out of me as a 21-year-old for missing the first training session, even though I let the club know I wasn’t going to be around because I was still on holiday. Alan McIndoe was on the same cruise I was and he didn’t get pulled through the shredder. But I was only an up-and-comer then. I was renegotiating a contract anyway, my contract had expired at the end of that season. I woke up on the Friday morning and rang Bobby Millward and said ‘sorry Bob, I can’t play at this club anymore’. And then Phil Larder, we had our issues (at Widnes) and I had a good time at Workington. I actually did make the (GB) squad after the Aussies came over in 1990. They played in a series, I didn’t get picked in that but the media pressure from over here … I did get picked for the French game in the new year and just before we went into the training camp, I did my knee in and never really got another chance.”
What did you think this year of England calling in Aussies and Kiwis over the past 12 months?
“A couple of them were OK but the Rangi Chase one was a bit bizarre. I didn’t even realise he’d been in the country that long. I can’t understand why he wanted to do it either, to be honest. The other two, fair play to them. They had the opportunity and they had the credentials. To be honest, Great Britain (sic) need as many decent players as they can get. If they can get a full squad on the paddock, they can be a bit of a handful. But they haven’t got the strength in depth. They haven’t got the numbers playing, unfortunately.”
How did you get your start in first grade with the Steelers?
“I was playing Presidents Cup and there were three or four of us who got drafted into the full contract with the Steelers. We played a game in the Under 23s, or third grade, and I went on as a sub in the reserve grade. Then I went into reserve grade the next week at Cronulla. I was playing against Kurt, actually, Kurt Sorensen, who I played with for seven years at Widnes. Then I sat on the bench for first grade and ran on – and it was Kurt’s brother Dane that fell on my knee, starting my bloody knee problems that I’ve been plagued with ever since! So from Presidents Cup, I was a first grader in two weeks, really. It was a pretty quick rise. Barry Jensen would have been playing hooker and Bolty (Michael Bolt) would have been in the reserves but he must have been injured.”
Was it a big change when Alan Fitzgibbon departed and Brian Smith arrived?
“Brian Smith … he had a lot of really good ideas and his methods were great. It was his attitude to the players that made me a bit wary of him. But what he’s done in the game, it’s great. He’s obviously got some talent.”
Of course your finest moments were at Widnes, winning a world title against Canberra in 1989. How did you come to join them?
“I was playing in the Group Six season in 1985. Rod Henniker took me up to Picton because I was looking for a fresh start, basically. I was finding it difficult to break into the first team at the Steelers with Michael Bolt there and (current Dragons director) Sean O’Connor was there as well. I had an absolutely fantastic season (at Picton), I got player of the year, we won the league. I was playing in one game, I can’t remember who against, and Pete Mulholland was watching. He came up to me after the game and said ‘have you ever thought of going to the UK? I’ve got some contacts over there’. I said ‘when do I leave?’. After a lot of conversations and tooing and froing, I ended up at Rochdale in 1985 and it was the best year of my life, really.”
The 1989 win over Canberra in World Club Challenge – a career highlight?
“Oh, it would have to be. I won two leagues with Widnes and the hard slog of winning leagues is pretty special. But those one-off games, particularly against the Aussies, must be the highlight of my career. It must be because the only jersey I’ve got left is the Canberra no.9.”
They were well in front, weren’t they?
“Yeah, after 10 minutes I thought we were going to get absolutely pasted. Then a quick turn of fortune, a quick tap by Tony Myler on our own 22 and the next minute we’re in their half, pressing the line and I put Martin Offiah over in the corner and everything started to change. We came out and … Mal Meninga had gone off injured at halftime. Johnathan Davies scored a super try in the corner when (Laurie) Daley tried to take his head off. He cartwheeled over and put the ball down and then still had the mind to get up and kick the goal from the touchline and we just ran riot from there. But that was the team that Widnes were. We just had that much pace and class in the team. Any team that took their foot off the pedal, we were ready to capitalise on that.”
With you building a profile in England like that, were there ever approaches to go home?
“Yeah, there were a few actually. I could have gone back to Cronulla after the first season, before I’d even gone to Widnes. Then I had a couple of approaches from Manly. Graham Lowe, he rang me because whoever was hooker for them got a bad injury and he wanted me to go over there. But it was just too difficult to sort all the logistics out. That’s one regret. I’ve got three regrets, really. One, that I didn’t go back to Australia and test my wares out there. Obviously not playing Test rugby (league) and not playing at Wembley. They’re the three regrets. I had a great career. You can’t complain. A lot of players didn’t get near winning the trophies or playing with the players that I did.”
What’s your favourite story from back then?
“Kurt was never one to start many fights. He finished a helluva lot. He hated Boydy (Les Boyd) but he hated Boydy because Boydy was a snider, a cheap shotter. Kurt hated that. He didn’t mind it if you stood in front of him and gave him a clout – fair enough. He’d give you one back, that would be it.”
They were nasty games back then, Widnes and Warrington.
“They were. It didn’t help that the fans didn’t like each other as well, with (the towns) being so close. Kurt was one who … on many occasions he’ll have been hit or elbowed or something … and he’d stand over a player and say ‘it might not be this game, it might not be the next but it will be coming’. It always stuck with me. It could be that game, it could be the next game, it could be a couple of years later. He’ll stand over someone who’s been poleaxed and he’d say ‘I told you it was coming’. It’s amazing how something like that can stick in your mind but it happened too many times … he was like an elephant, he never forgot. The other funny one, we were playing Hull at Naughton Park one day and the Hull women, for some reason, were the most disgusting people. This old lady, she must have been 50 or 60, spat at him as we were coming through the cage. He was captain and I always went out behind him. If I could have stopped the whole team from going out that day, he would have won the game on his own. He ripped their team to shreds. Coming back off, I was looking for that woman to thank her because it’s probably the best game I’ve ever seen Kurt play and he’s played many. Any other stories, wouldn’t be printable.”
What do you think about the St George Illawarra merger and about Widnes being back in Super League? And the game as a whole?
“The merger obviously had to happen. I’ve been here 25, 26 years now so you miss a lot of the politics that goes on down there. It’s a shame but economically it was probably the only option. I still keep an eye on what they’re doing. I was made up that they won (in 2010). I get pissed off when they go through these periods where they seem to throw games away. I’m still an Illawarra Steeler, Dragon, whatever you want to call me, at heart. I’m made up that Widnes are back in the league. When they missed out on the franchise last time … in hindsight it’s the best thing that ever happened to them because they weren’t ready for it, for Super League at that stage. They might not be (now), player-wise, but structurally they’ve got everything in place. The game itself? I just wish the (English) Rugby League would stop trying to expand. They’ll never expand in a million years here. I can see why they want to but football, rugby union and other sports are just so ingrained in the culture of the rest of the country. It really pisses you off that they can throw so much money at Wales and London and have the likes of Barrow and Leigh go into liquidation. If they put more money into what they’ve got … the game would be much better.”
RLW LEGEND SIDEBAR
PHIL McKenzie is friends with many of member of the great Widnes team he was part of two decades ago – with one glaring exception.
“Tony Myler lives around the corner from me,” he says. “Richie Eyres lives in the same village. I see the Hulme brothers (David and Paul) quite a bit, mainly at club functions and things.
“There’s not many of them around. I haven’t spoken to Kurt (Sorensen) since I left Workington in the early nineties. I believe he’s back in Australia.
“All the other Aussies and Kiwis, aside from Esene Faimalo, have all gone back. I see him every now and then. He lives in Widnes.”
But what about flamboyant Dancing With The Stars contestant, Martin Offiah?
“Martin Offiah? I played with Martin for five or six years and last time I spoke to him, he blanked me,” says McKenzie.
“So I don’t care what he’s up to, really.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK