They were unsettling times for fringe players – the period leading up to the start of the inaugural NRL season in 1998.
The Australian Rugby League and Super League were in the process of settling their differences, after there were two competitions in 1997 – The ARL’s Optus Cup (12 teams) and Super League’s Telstra Cup (10 teams).
That meant there were 22 clubs with nearly 700 players on decent money, many on sensational money.
And a host of Super League contracted Australians and New Zealanders had been placed with clubs in England and France, where the Super League aligned, summer ‘Euro League’ was played at the same time as the Australian competitions.
There was even a mid-season World Club Challenge between the Australian and New Zealand Super League Clubs and the 12 English and French (Paris St Germaine) clubs.
At the end of 1997 the gravy train was to come to a shuddering halt.
Not all those ARL and Super League contracted players could hope to get deals in what was likely to be a streamlined Australian competition in 1998.
Some of the Australians and New Zealanders playing in England in 1997 were: Graeme Bradley, Robbie Paul, Danny Peacock, Jeff Wittenberg, Glen Tomlinson (Bradford); Adrian Vowles (Castleford); David Bouveng, John Schuster (Halifax); Richie Blackmore, Wayne Collins, Tony Kemp, Damian Gibson, Martin Masella, Jamie Mathiou, Gary Mercer (Leeds), Brett Goldspink, Luke Goodwin (Oldham); Derek McVey (St Helens), John Cartwright (Salford), Rod Doyle, Steve Edmed, Jason Erba, Danny McAllister, Willie Morganson (Sheffield); George Mann, Nigel Vagana (Warrington); Henry Paul (Wigan).
As for London Broncos and Paris St Germaine? It is better to list those players who were not Australians, Kiwis or Pacific Islanders.
I’m certainly not going to list their overseas players here, except for some of the more prominent names.
London (coached by Australian, Tony Currie): Peter Gill, Russell Bawden, Terry Matterson, Tony Martin, Tony Mestrov. London used 10 Englishman and one Scotsman during the season. There were 20 Australians who played in the ‘first team’.
Paris St Germaine (coached by Australian, Peter Mulholland, with Englishman, Andy Goodway succeeding him mid-season): Jason Martin, David O’Donnell, Tony Priddle, Wayne Sing. Paris used 12 Frenchmen during the season, and 23 Australians.
Photo 1: Peter Gill playing for London
My brother, Stewart and I had seen Wayne Collins at Singapore Airport, on our way to Spain for the start of a 28 day European fact finding trip. Wayne was heading back to Australia after his season with Leeds, in which he played 29 games.
He had scored a try in Leeds’ World Club Challenge loss to the Cowboys in Townsville. Leeds did not reach the quarter finals of the WCC, and they finished fifth on the English Super League Championship ladder.
It was my brother, Stewart’s first overseas trip, while it was my eighth time in Europe. The prime purpose of the trip was to check-out accommodation, tourist attractions etc., ahead of my 1998 Supporters’ Tour.
There was nothing to support in ’98, given the Kangaroo touring cycle had been obliterated by the Super League war.
But many of my faithful followers – there were 33 in 1990 and 44 in 1994 – said, ‘Blow it’. Let’s go anyway, and we can take in one of the Great Britain v New Zealand Tests.
I agreed, and also promised a big rugby league component in the south of France.
So, Stewart and I were to start our trip in Madrid, Spain, where my tour was also to begin. From there our travels were to take us to Barcelona (2 nights); Carcassonne (2 nights), Avignon (1 night); Nice (1 night); Montreux (1 night); Heidelberg (1 night); Paris (2 nights); Dover (2 nights); York (2 nights); Hawick (2 nights); Wigan (one night); Galway (3 nights); Dublin (2 nights); Hereford (1 night); Winchester (1 night); London (2 nights). A bit too hectic, really.
From Madrid Airport, we drove our hire car to our hotel, via Segovia and its amazing Roman aquaduct. Our local bar was Bar King, which proved something of a student hangout, and that meant cheap beer. At first we thought the barman was dour, but, when the students arrived, he appeared wearing a cowboy hat, and got into the swing of things.
After two nights in Madrid, we drove to Barcelona, arriving in the city in the aftermath of the wedding of Princess Crisstina and olympic handball star, Inaki Urdangarin, so the traffic was more chaotic than ever. Stewart and I hopped into pimentos (chillis) at our local bar, while downing a few ales.
The next day I inspect the hotel, where my tour group would be staying. It was opposite the main railway station, which boasted a fine bar.
Stewart and I had a seafood lunch, down by the harbor, folowed by a few beers at a sports bar where Real Madrid were playing somebody. An Englishman interpreted for us, and that night we ran into him again, at the Black Horse English pub.
The next day we were scheduled to catch a train to Carcassonne, in France. That story, and others from our travels, for another time.
Photo 2: Stewart Ricketts in Madrid.