EXCLUSIVE: An interview with Paul Sculthorpe MBE

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A living legend of rugby league, Paul Sculthorpe won everything the domestic game could offer during his career with St Helens. With over 350 career games under his belt, the first consecutive Man of Steel winner retired in 2008 and, having recently met ‘Scully’ at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium, Get ’em Onside firstly spoke with the Lancastrian about the end of his playing career and what he misses.

“When I go along to a big game like a Challenge Cup final or Grand Final and you see the boys walk out, you definitely get envious of that – there’s nothing like the big games. The Good Friday games between Saints and Wigan… they’re special moments and nothing could ever replicate that,” he admitted, but added that “I’ve had my turn, I’ve done it and I certainly don’t have any regrets.” Having spent all of his career in Super League though, and with his reputation as one of the best British players to ever play the game, there were chances to test himself in arguably the best rugby league arena in the world. “There were a couple of offers from the NRL,” Sculthorpe revealed. “[Sydney] Roosters and Penrith [Panthers] were interested. It was different then, there was more money in the game over here. I was in a five year contract at Saints and I was thoroughly happy but, for me, the biggest thing was family. We had my son and we’re all really close so taking him to the other side of the world wasn’t something I wanted to do, that meant more to me than the rugby so that’s why I never did it.” Quite a refreshing view in contrast to many players nowadays who suggest that they want to go to the NRL to test themselves against the best, the 40 year-old believes that international rugby was also a high standard. “I think I proved myself at international level and it wasn’t one of them where you had to go to NRL to test myself, I think I was more than capable.”

One of those instances where he was able to showcase his ability against teams from Down Under in the Saints shirt, however, was nearly a missed opportunity for Sculthorpe. Injured in the previous September, the 2007 World Club Challenge against Brisbane Broncos was an immediate target for the Great Britain star after his setback. Speaking of that injury, he told Get ’em Onside that “it’s awful being out for so long. Even though you’re in the club and around the boys, you’re not out on the training field with them and it’s a very lonely place.” He admitted that, during that time out before the 2007 season with a serious knee injury, that retirement crossed his mind. “The knee could have been a major problem. It was a microfracture and it takes eighteen months to properly heal – I was back playing after six but it’s not right because they drill holes in your bone… it’s long term and anybody who has had that injury will tell you that it’s awful. It was a real issue but the best man in the country, Andrew Williams in London, who sorted me out and I came back from the Brisbane game,” he said. Of the build up to that match, Sculthorpe articulated that “I was in unbelievable condition for that. I only found out I was playing late and it was only if I got through a small-sided game in training that I was in the squad… it was a bit of a mad week!” Head coach Daniel Anderson made the decision to put his gifted star on the bench and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Everything that day was pretty special,” he admitted. After coming off the bench early on, Sculthorpe took a starring role as St Helens beat their NRL opponents 18-14 and he himself was a landslide man of the match winner. At the time, he said that “it’s just great to be back playing again. The occasion certainly helped me. It doesn’t take much to get up for a game like that.” Crossing for his team’s second try while also ending with three kicks from as many attempts, it was a fairytale return from injury for Sculthorpe and it is clearly something he is proud of.

Regrets – “Probably an Ashes win with Great Britain against Australia. We came so close on so many occasions and that’s a real bug bear of mine!” he admitted. “GB is looking like it’s coming back in 2019. It’s got so much history and players want to play for that badge. I only played four times for England in my career, it wasn’t the big thing back then – it was all about playing for GB,” he added, hoping that those playing today get the opportunity to get that victory over the Aussies. Currently a part of the England international setup having joined up ahead of the 2016 Four Nations, Sculthorpe’s role with the England Performance Unit will hopefully ensure that future England teams and, in turn, GB if they continue beyond 2019, have the best chance for international success. “It’s a group of seven from coaching staff to business support. We oversee all of the England program from youth, academy, wheelchair, women, England Knights and the Elite squad ahead of the 2021 RLWC,” he explained. “I do some coaching with the England elite and I’m the assistant with the Knights as well as some coaching on the pathway with the youth and women. It’s massive, I’m full time with England and enjoying it,” the Saints icon further added.

However, despite being involved with coaching on the international scene, Sculthorpe never had an inclination to coach a domestic team, unlike his former team mate Keiron Cunningham. “I never wanted to go down the club coaching route. I was coaching at junior level but being a club head coach was never for me. I don’t live and breathe the game like coaches have to,” he admitted. “I’ve got more into it and I’m more involved now with the England setup but club coaching isn’t all about coaching,” he added, continuing “it’s all the rest of the day-to-day stuff that comes with it.” Instead, he has continued with that business interest off the field. “I’ve got a few businesses of my own and I’m involved with the business side of things. When I retired from playing I went straight into the business side of things for Saints,” the 2001 and 2002 Man of Steel winner shared.

The relationship with St Helens was one that Sculthorpe enjoyed for a huge part of his career. In fact, following two seasons with Warrington Wolves where he built upon his reputation as one of the best youngsters in the game, a big fee saw him sign for Saints for what was then a world record fee for a forward. Asked whether the price tag of £375,000 left him feeling under pressure, he revealed that he felt no such thing. “Not at all, I didn’t feel under any pressure. I’d always back my own ability and I thought that if Saints were willing to pay a record fee then I’m doing stuff right. I’ve always had a good work ethic and loved training – I still do now as hard as I did when I played. I came to Saints to be part of a winning team,” he said, something which he certainly did. During his time at Saints, he and the team enjoyed a hugely successful period in the club’s illustrious history. From when he joined the club in 1997 to his retirement at the end of 2008, the ‘Red V’ won everything they could; four Super League titles, five Challenge Cup victories and two World Club Challenge triumphs. The silverware-laden career Sculthorpe enjoyed followed his record breaking move at the age of nineteen. In some environments, he may well have walked into a changing room full of experienced professionals and received stick or hostility. However, he told me that couldn’t be further from the truth. “I had played with a lot of them for Great Britain anyway, the likes of Bobbie Goulding, Chris Joynt, Paul Newlove… players like that so I knew the boys. Rugby league is a small community anyway so players know each other. I had the respect of the players and they had mine so it was quite a seamless move,” he explained.

Throughout such a remarkable career, Sculthorpe played under some brilliant coaches and, when it came to naming the best, he named a fellow icon of the sport. “I loved playing under Ellery [Hanley, Saints coach from 1998-2000] for the eighteen months we had him at Saints. He was my hero as a child growing up and, for me, good coaching is 95% about man management and, for me, he was great,” he said, continuing that “I think he got the best out of me and the players, he obviously had the respect of the boys due to what he did on the field so, I enjoyed that.” Sculthorpe also mentioned Saints’ longest serving head coach of recent times, Hanley’s successor Ian Millward who was in charge from 2000 to his departure in May 2005. “Basil was always good fun to play under. Don’t get me wrong, there were some tremendous players but every day was different, he had a gameplan that was different. We did some wacky things but he let us play and, with the players that we had, that was always good fun to play under,” further suggesting that style isn’t so prevalent now due to the more structured nature of the sport compared to when he was playing.

“The spine of the team at Saints was brilliant; Paul Wellens, Keiron Cunningham, Sean Long, myself, Chris Joynt. He was an unbelievable captain, always led the way with his performances… Paul Newlove, Kevin Iro, Jamie Lyon and Martin Gleeson, they were some outstanding players that I loved playing with,” he revealed as some of the greats he played alongside for St Helens. As for his time on the international stage, two players from his club team’s biggest rival came to mind. “Faz [Andy Farrell] and Kris Radlinski, they were quality players,” he added. On St Helens fans’ groups on social media, there has been comparisons between Justin Holbrook’s 2017 league leaders and the Saints class of 2006, something which Get ’em Onside put to Sculthorpe when I met him. “That team was an unreal one. On paper it’d take some beating by any team in Super League now. The game has changed, it’s totally different, there’s a lot of younger players coming through now, it’s just the way the game is now because of the money that’s available due to the salary cap,” he explained. “Younger players have got to be put in there now,” he added, agreeing that it can only benefit the England setup he is involved in going forward. “We want to develop our own and that’s the only way. If we are going to get stronger internationally we need a bigger pool of players to choose from and those of better quality.” 

Some of those youngsters who have benefited from that change, and the standouts who Sculthorpe identified as those who have impressed him recently, are recent breakthroughs at some of the competition’s biggest clubs. “Danny Richardson looks good and he can only get better and the only way he will learn is if he’s playing. Jack Walker and Tom Davies are two who stick out as well,” he shared, adding that “there’s a number. I’ve worked with a few with the England academy last year. That’s the great thing and what I’m really enjoying at the moment with the Knights program, it’s like an England reserve team which we have roughly tried to keep to under 23s in build up to the 2021 World Cup when the players will be in their prime.” In turn, that led to Sculthorpe sharing one big issue he currently has with the system that currently prevails in this country, revealing that “my gripe with the game at the moment is not having a reserve grade. There’s not enough players coming through who are playing. There needs to be a pathway for them and, at the moment, there isn’t,” agreeing with the suggestion that the gap from academy straight to first team is simply too big for a lot of players. “Everybody is saying we need it but nobody is doing anything about it yet.”

Research for this interview led Get ’em Onside to find a rather impressive brawl between ‘Scully’ and two Australians, Craig Fitzgibbon and Mark O’Meley, during an international encounter. Confirming that he loved the aggressive side of the sport, he revealed that “it’s another thing that bugs me – the game has become so sanitized now. The game is about getting on top of your opposition and it’s a physical sport and there’s ways of doing that. The set-to was a part of the game and, off the pitch, me and Fitzy are good mates. It’s part and parcel of the game,” he explained. “The referee gave us a bit of a telling off but then said to get back in the line – we’d have both walked nowadays. We shook hands straight after it, it was just part and parcel of the game then. I always loved the physical side of it, that’s probably a part of what I miss.” On that topic, he shared that he loved coming up against the best players to test himself, saying “Andy Farrell was always a good one. The Saints Wigan derbies were always special and the games I always looked forward to, they were always physical and when you have a full house with great passion from the fans it didn’t half spur the players on.”

During his time with Saints and since his retirement, what is clear from speaking to the 40 year old is that he believes the game has changed. “It’s a lot more structured now and it’s all about winning the speed of the ruck. I’d like to see a bit more football and creativity in the game,” he admitted, agreeing that the imagination shown by two teams in particular over the last eighteen months have set them apart. “I think that’s what Saints are doing this year and what Cas were doing in 2017. Even though they’ve got structure they play football and, when you have the likes of Benny Barba and Mark Percival involved from a St Helens point of view, you want them with ball in hand. I think that’s why they have so much success,” he shared. Sculthorpe agreed with Get ’em Onside’s suggestion that, when Holbrook initially came over to Super League roughly a year ago, there may have been concern about playing in the overly structured Australian style. That, however, is certainly not the case. “You can see the boys are enjoying playing for him and, when you enjoy doing what you’re doing, it’s always better. They’re playing with confidence and it grows from there.”

Clearly a family-orientated individual, Paul’s brother Danny, a fellow former professional, has had well-publicised issues with his mental health and is now working with organisations supporting those struggling with it. The promotion of mental health awareness in rugby league is something which has become very prominent in the past few years, something which the Saints icon believes is a very good thing. “I think it’s massive and the sport has certainly led the way on that. It’s great – a lot of people think there’s a stigma about opening up if you are struggling because it shows weakness or whatever but, if a sixteen stone rugby player can do it, then anybody can,” he shared. “It’s been fantastic what people like Danny and Stevie Ward have been doing around it, State of Mind and Offload as well. I’m sure it’s saved lives already, Danny does it full time now and is all over the country talking to people and he is spreading the word.”

“It’s a great thing that it’s out there now and helping people.”

Finally, looking at his old team’s hopes for this season, Sculthorpe shared his predictions. “I tipped them to win it at the beginning of the year – unsurprisingly. I really thought that, on the back of last year when they were one brainfart away from being in a Grand Final and could have finished the job, this year they were going to start with confidence. With a full pre-season with Justin under their belt and everybody back fit I felt they’d be strong – they’re not proving me wrong at the moment!” he outlined. Get ’em Onside’s meeting with the four-time Super League Dream Team member came shortly after the release of As Good as it Gets, the documentary focusing on Leeds Rhinos’ 2015 treble winning season. As such, it would have been negligent to not as the rugby league living legend his view on whether Saints could produce such a feat this season. “It’s a big ask but why not? They’re the team to beat at the moment and the Challenge Cup is very different, it’s all about what happens on the day. They’ve got Castleford away but, if they’re going to win it, you’ve got to beat the best and whoever is in front of you. But why not? It’d be great to see them win Super League and have another crack at the World Club Challenge – they were special days, always great occasions.”

In 2013, Sculthorpe was awarded an MBE for his services to rugby league and to charity. A mark of the man being a genuinely nice bloke, that is exactly what Get ’em Onside found when meeting a man who was, in 2010, named in the best ever Saints team to mark their 120th year and final one at Knowsley Road. Clearly still highly thought of in the club, walking round the Totally Wicked Stadium with him showed everybody greeting him and saying good morning, something which was invariably reciprocated. An absolute legend of the game, it was a privilege to meet and talk to Paul Sculthorpe MBE.

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