My first call-up was for Great Britain in 2003. I’d played for England A the year before when we went to New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga and I got ‘player of the tour’.
That gave me confidence to think I could go on to honours but it still came sooner than I thought. Back then, Great Britain used to go on a pre-tournament camp to Marbella and I remember my dad dropping me off at Manchester Airport. I was still thinking then ‘what if I’ve got this all wrong and it was the England A team after all?’!
It was a really daunting experience. I was 22 and playing for Wakefield but there were no other Trinity players there.
Most players there had either been in the system a while or at least knew people or club-mates.
My first room-mate that night before we went to Marbella was Kris Radlinski. The trip was a bit of a weird experience for me and I was probably really quiet, just trying to go about my business.
That, though, is probably why I got a chance to debut in the third Test against Australia that year.
You were cannon fodder for the first team for most of the series and after every session you’d get flogged by the conditioner. But that was an opportunity to earn your stripes I suppose. I thought I’d just be getting experience in the squad but I got to debut.
David Waite was head coach. When the third Test came along, I remember Graham Steadman, one of the assistants, coming up to me and saying ‘If he asks you if you can play at prop, just say yes’.
I didn’t know what he was on about but Steady told me he thought Waitey wanted to play someone in the middle who had a bit of footwork so just to say ‘yes’ if he asked.
When it did come around, and I had a conversation with Waitey, I was just ‘Yep, yep, I can do that!’.
Steady was brilliant. It was really good of him to give me the heads up. My next international coach was Brian Noble, who had also been a Lions assistant.
I went from Waitey, who I didn’t know and had come from Australia but was a really good, astute coach, to Nobby, who always had a bit more connection with the players given he was a club coach at Bradford as well.
It was a different dynamic with Nobby. He was a good coach nonetheless but also able to have a laugh and joke with the players.
Then came Tony Smith. My own club coach at Leeds.
We whitewashed New Zealand in ’07 and were back as England for the 2008 World Cup.
There was talk of disharmony between Leeds and St Helens player on that ’08 trip Down Under.
At the time, I didn’t notice it but looking back there probably was friction there given Tony was the Leeds coach and the number of Rhinos players in that squad alongside Saints players.
I was a bit oblivious to it and caught up in my own role. I’ve always been that way: how do I play and prepare?
But it wasn’t until afterwards I realised it probably was right. Nobody wants it but the fact Leeds – at the time – had turned a great side like Saints over a few times in Grand Finals probably did leave a bugbear.
There was probably a bit of disharmony – which you can’t afford to have at that level.
Tony tried to bring the ‘Club England’ in but it was Steve McNamara who really took it to another level – there were regular meetings and get-togethers and it almost felt like international rugby league was at the forefront of why we were doing everything.
But I’d actually played with Steve so that was another different level of relationship with an England coach.
Steve was probably the one I could feel most comfortable with in terms of my relations with him and it was him I rang to say I was going to retire from international duties. He was really good on the phone with me at that time.
Now, after lockdowns, Wane gets to meet his players face to face tomorrow when they train at Leeds Beckett University to properly start work towards the World Cup at the end of the year.
Some players may feel like I did when getting ready to go to Marbella.
But I listened to Waney on the BBC on Saturday and thought he came out with some really good stuff which rang true with me.
I remember speaking to Steve McNamara about how I was playing at Wests Tigers and I didn’t feel like some of the stuff I was doing there was transferring to me with England.
Waney was talking about Castleford Tigers hooker Paul McShane and I made the comparison to me at Wests; it was really good that he recognised the same thing and has an approach to it already.
McShane has got a lot on his shoulders; he is Cas’ talisman and, as we saw in that remarkable game on Friday, he picks up the pieces and comes up with plays.
But Waney said that when he maybe plays international, there’s another 16 blokes all at that level and it’s about finding that role that suits you within the team that suits everybody else.
It’s really important that Waney is on that level and speaking to the players about that – which he says he has been doing with McShane. It shows great foresight to bring a group of individuals from different teams together and then it’s about getting the best out of them.
He’s obviously thought long and hard about what he wants from his players. And he seems clear with that. He was like that for a long time with Wigan; I think we’ll see those traits with England and hopefully some success at last.
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