Weekend Interview: Legend Wally Lewis back on familiar territory in Yorkshire

WITHIN moments of entering Headingley Stadium, the memories of his time there swiftly roll back.

BIG MONEY: Wally Lewis on his Wakefield debut. Grounded in the background is Hull's Peter Sterling, Lewis's famous Kangaroos half-partner. Pic courtesy of Wakefield Trinity.

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Even though the ground is now mainly a building site, Wally Lewis, universally known in the world of rugby league as ‘The King’ for obvious reasons, still has his bearings from more than 30 years ago.

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The legendary former Australia stand-off points out the corner of the ground where the changing rooms were when he, bizarrely, appeared there for Wakefield Trinity in 1983-84.

Australia rugby legend Wally Lewis has flown into the country for a series of special speaking events. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Lewis recalls the colourful language directed at him by the locals – he had that everywhere during his famous 10-game stint for Trinity, not least from some of his own team-mates – and of course, being sent-off, too.

Before the interview officially begins, though, there are other reasons for recollections; Garry Schofield – the former Leeds and Great Britain centre who, among many battles, faced him there in the third and final Test of the Kangaroos 1986 Ashes tour – stops for a warm embrace.

Sir Ian McGeechan and Gary Hetherington come over to chat, too – it was a bit of a Who’s Who of Rugby on Wednesday around the Carnegie Cafe – while Lewis arrives with good friend Colin Maskill, the ex-Leeds hooker who was still just a teenager when playing alongside the revered Queenslander at Trinity in 1983.

But for all Leeds is the venue it is Wakefield that is obviously soon the topic of conversation.

Wally Lewis, former Wakefield Trinity player.

Rated by greats such as Arthur Beetson and Andrew Johns no less as the finest player ever to play the sport, Lewis is in the UK for a whistlestop three-date tour of speaking events around Yorkshire recollecting his remarkable career.

Granted, that is principally as a State of Origin icon – the Brisbane Broncos star played 31 times for Queensland, 30 as captain and recorded a record eight man-of-the-matches – plus his feats with Australia, who the masterful No 6 captained during one of their most celebrated eras.

Nevertheless, of particular interest to his English followers, is that short but productive spell with Trinity when, arriving on world-record wages of £1,000 per game, Lewis attempted to save them from relegation.

No one really believed it was happening, the world’s greatest player pitching up at Belle Vue, and, infamously, his own team-mates weren’t happy either.

Australia rugby legend Wally Lewis has flown into the country for a series of special speaking events. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

Lewis, 58, explained how it all came about and said: “I’d been asked in my last two games on tour here with Queensland in ‘83 if I was interested.

“I received an approach from a guy. I didn’t really know him. He was talking about coming back to play for Wakefield Trinity but I said I needed a summer at home as I’d been here with the Kangaroos in ‘82 as well.

“He put the figures up but I refused. l told him I was going home but he continued to contact me after I got back there. He started out with an offer of £150 per match and it kept going up. I needed to p*** this bloke off and get rid of him so I came up with a ball-park figure (£1,000). He nearly had a heart attack to start with. But then he said yes.

“I said I don’t care and still didn’t want to go but he said I’d asked for a fee and they’d agreed.

Wally Lewis, former Wakefield Trinity player.

“So, I headed over here. It was a less than impressive welcome I got from the boys. It was an interesting time and I could understand it. Things were tough for Wakefield. Nigel Stephenson was the captain, a lovely fella. I remember there was such rejection from a lot of the blokes; it was very difficult for them to accept me coming.

“Nigel came to the fore and said ‘Look Wally we’re trying to avoid this but for a lot of us we’re trying to keep our position here. You coming is not going to help some guys.’

“I was honest and told him I didn’t want to come here at all!

“It got to the stage where, at one point, I just told them I don’t care if you like me or not. I was there to stop relegation and if you want to play with me come out on the field. If not don’t bother.

“A group of them were stood around talking. I don’t know what was said but they came out.

“Anyway, we went on and I think we won five of the 10 games while I was there but they didn’t win again after I left.”

Wakefield were, of course, eventually relegated but Lewis does have fond memories of his time in the West Yorkshire town.

He proposed to his girlfriend Jacqui during his time there and they are married to this day.

Lewis stayed with Brian Briggs, the former Wakefield and Great Britain second-row who ran the British Oak hotel in Stanley.

“Everyday I remember thinking I just want to go to the movies tonight, or go anywhere just to get away from the grog!” he recalled.

“I was hanging around there as Barry Hough, one of the sponsors who came up with those match fees, used to come have a drink most nights. I felt almost compelled to go there, too!

“The fans were great as well. I built up a real bond with them and I had such respect for them; the resilience of English rugby league fans to go across the country when they didn’t really need to, in all sorts of weather, it’s a wonderful unwavering support.”

For all many of his team-mates begrudged him those astronomical wages, Lewis did still respect them.

“People say what do you remember most about playing at Wakey but it wasn’t something on the field,” he said.

“I’d watch these guys turn up to train you’d see they’d have this one area around their face that was clean and it looked just like it had been washed.

“Everything else was dirt, dust and sh** after getting out of the mines. I used to think they’re busting their a*** all day long working, then coming here, half as they like their football and half as they needed the money.

“They were strong characters and didn’t beat around the bush; they called spade a spade.

“I do remember running out for my first training session, though. We only got to halfway and cut around back.

“I asked why we weren’t running full laps? Someone responded ‘This is what we do here lad.’ I liked that! It would have been five or maybe 10 per cent of what we’d do there in comparison to what we did physical fitness wise in Australia.”

And what does he remember of being red-carded at Leeds?

“The referee said that I’d said something to him,” he explained.

“I said obviously he’d misheard me due to my accent. He repeated what I’d said but I said ‘no, I dropped another three or four f**ks in there.’

“He looked at me and nodded. I was frustrated. It’s great to be back, though. I’ve been hoping to come back and do this tour for the last five years and it’s not happened for whatever reason so I’m happy to get to do it before I’m 75 and in a wheelchair.”

Wally Lewis is appearing at Victoria Hall, Keighley tomorrow. Details at www.mjksportsevents.co.uk