Weekend Interview: Leon Pryce takes time to reflect on stellar career

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REFRESHED, invigorated and beginning to get his head around retirement, Leon Pryce is in a good place.

It should be no surprise; the former Great Britain star has just completed one of the great rugby league careers, winning countless trophies, representing his country with real distinction and, more than anything, thrilling crowds along the way.

Leon Pryce.
 Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Leon Pryce. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

His excellent autobiography Pryceless, which was released yesterday, chronicles it all with an absorbing, entertaining and often hilarious account of one of Super League’s most colourful characters on and off the field.

However, barely three weeks ago, the 35-year-old was in a far different place entirely.

The Bradford Bulls captain announced his unexpected retirement just a few days after being jeered off the pitch by a handful of the club’s own fans when substituted during a 56-12 loss against London Broncos.

The Championship fixture was at Odsal, the famous ground where he first emerged with such finesse and elan for his hometown club three decades earlier, helping them sweep to glories galore during Bullmania.

People always remember the bad things you do and not always the good and I started thinking why am I letting a handful of people dictate my mood and get myself down?

Leon Pryce

Pryce went on to enjoy just as much success again with St Helens – it is no coincidence the gilded stand-off played for two of the finest sides in the summer era – before spending three years with Catalans Dragons and the last two campaigns at Hull FC.

Having left Bradford at the age of just 24, however, signing off in style with a try and the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man-of-the-match in their 2005 Grand Final win over Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford, there was always a hope he would one day return to his natural home.

Pryce, nearing the end of his remarkable odyssey, duly agreed to drop down into the Championship with Bulls for 2017 in what, essentially, would be his final playing act.

Yet, not long after signing, the ailing club suffered a third administration inside just four years, this time resulting in its liquidation in January.

Great Britain's Leon Pryce, in action for great Britain against New Zealand at Ewood Park, Blackburn in November 2002. Picture: PA/Gareth Copley

Great Britain's Leon Pryce, in action for great Britain against New Zealand at Ewood Park, Blackburn in November 2002. Picture: PA/Gareth Copley

A reformed Bradford began the new campaign on minus 12 points as punishment but, 17 games in, have still yet to get to a positive status and life has certainly been hard for all involved, not least Pryce who remained dogged by persistent knee problems.

Nevertheless, having once graced that same pitch with the likes of Robbie Paul, Jimmy Lowes, Lesley Vainikolo, Jamie Peacock et al, reaching five successive Grand Finals and twice lifting the World Club Challenge for them, could he ever have envisaged being booed by his own crowd in such an unedifying manner?

Talking to The Yorkshire Post earlier this week, Pryce admitted: “I always planned to come back and try one more season.

“I’m Bradford born and have not finished on the terms I wanted. It hasn’t worked out, but at least I’ve tried. My body couldn’t do it any more. I couldn’t do it on the field – I was struggling – and mentally probably as well.

Bradford Bulls' Leon Pryce and Lesley Vainikolo (R) join the celebrations as they lift the trophy after defeating Leeds Rhinos in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford in October 2005. Picture: John Giles/PA.

Bradford Bulls' Leon Pryce and Lesley Vainikolo (R) join the celebrations as they lift the trophy after defeating Leeds Rhinos in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford in October 2005. Picture: John Giles/PA.

“That (booing) was it. That was the point. When people are telling you to retire...

“I got myself really down and beat myself up about this. I got in a very dark place really.

“But I was speaking to someone about it and he said ‘Out of the 20 years you’ve played and hundreds of thousands of cheers you’ve had, why are you remembering a couple of boos?’

“And that did put a different perspective on it for me and I just thought … I always think about the negatives and not the positives and you do don’t you?

“People always remember the bad things you do and not always the good and I started thinking why am I letting a handful of people dictate my mood and get myself down? I ended up putting a different spin on it and thought they’d done me a favour as I couldn’t do it anymore.

“I was forcing myself out there and I wouldn’t want people to remember me as that player who was just broken. That’s life. You move forward, get stronger and at least I had a dig.

CLOSE TO THE END: Leon Pryce in action for Bradford against Rochdale Hornets in February this year. Picture: Simon Hulme

CLOSE TO THE END: Leon Pryce in action for Bradford against Rochdale Hornets in February this year. Picture: Simon Hulme

“I’m just that kind of guy that lets things effect me that I shouldn’t, but I do because I care.

“It was tough because at Catalans I went home early and didn’t get the chance to say goodbye the way I wanted to, at Hull my season was finished probably six or seven weeks before the end.

“I didn’t want my lasting memory of my last-ever rugby league game as walking off my hometown field getting booed. But that is what it was.

“I went away on holiday in Greece and that’s really helped. I needed to get away.

“Just sat at home depressed, sulking and being in a dark place is no good for you when you’re at the end of your career.

“My family were going away for two weeks and I would have been on my own, so my in-laws and wife flew me out there to be with them and make sure that I was okay.”

Four Super League titles, five Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenge titles is a formidable haul for any player, while Pryce is also one of only three players – Kevin Sinfield and Paul Wellens being the others – to win both the Harry Sunderland Trophy and, as Challenge Cup final man-of-the-match, Lance Todd Trophy, too.

Furthermore, he was also part of the Great Britain side that memorably beat Australia in Sydney in 2006, the last side from these shores to do so.

His famous quote about Blackpool beach being better than Bondi is, of course, detailed in the book along with a plethora of escapades. Pryce – who is set to take up an off-field role at Bradford – added: “No doubt I have been really very fortunate and lucky to play in two great (club) sides like I did.

“It’s okay getting individual accolades but really you have to be playing among good players to achieve trophies. I’m very lucky I played for the Bulls in their prime years and then for Saints in what was a dynasty at the time. I can’t be any more thankful for the way things have gone in my career. As for the best player I’ve played with, I speak about Longy (Sean Long) a lot in the book as he’s probably been the biggest influence in my career.

“As the kind of player I am, if I’m playing with a controlling half-back, it leaves me free to do what I want. I had that with him (at St Helens) and I think there’s been no better scrum-half that’s played the game on these shores.

“It helped my game but his rugby league knowledge is second to none, so I learned a lot.

“Also playing with Scully (Paul Sculthorpe) when he was at his peak for Great Britain … he was just phenomenal.”

A word that, no matter what that handful of people say, will always be associated with Pryce, too.

Pryceless, by Leon Pryce with Aaron Bower, is available from all good bookshops, and can be ordered online for £20 including UK delivery from www.gnbooks.co.uk or call 01274 735056.