‘Big Willie’ Mason was polite, as he declined my request for an interview, at London’s Heathrow Airport.
“‘Sorry Steve. ‘Wayne’ has put me on a media ban,” he said.
‘Wayne’ Bennett was coach of the Australian rugby league side, and Willie was one of his ‘personality players’, a larger than life character, who was always good for a quote.
I knew all about Wayne’s media bans, but from a different perspective. In 2001, Wayne had banned me, because of articles I had written about his star Broncos’ centre, Justin Hodges defecting to the Roosters.
The ban, which meant Wayne would not let me interview him, lasted three years, and was only lifted after Australian Rugby League Chief Executive, Geoff Carr intervened, ahead of this trip to Britain, for a Tri-Nations tournament, which also involved Great Britain and New Zealand.
Not only was I to cover the trip for Brisbane’s ‘The Courier-Mail’, but I also had to send my stories to Sydney’s ‘Daily Telegraph’.
I had gone into camp with the Australian team in Sydney on October 10, and then covered their 16-16 draw with New Zealand in Auckland, on October 16, ahead of flying to London, where the Trans-Tasman foes were to meet again, at Loftus Road, home ground of Queens Park Rangers Football Club.
The return clash was close to a sell-out, with tickets snapped up by ex-pat Aussies and Kiwis in London.
On checking out of the Crowne Plaza, Auckland on Sunday, October 17 I caught a cab to the airport, with my female driver, an Aussie, who had moved from Darwin to New Zealand to live. She, like my wife, Marie, had worked in the tobacco industry at Motueka on the South Island – in 1968-69. My wife (then Marie Donnelly) and her back-packing companions, Janelle Vidler and Michelle Gordon, worked there in 1970.
“Those were wild times,” said my driver. “The Post Office Hotel (Motueka) was a swinging place”.
Note – Quiz Marie about ‘swinging, Post Office Hotel’.
After filing stories from the airport, I made myself as comfortable as possible in economy, sitting beside, Derek, who was on his way to Spain to attend the funeral of his dad (85). Derek, 56, played breakaway in rugby union. I watched a few movies, including ‘The Terminal’ and ‘Tom White’.
There was a stop-over at Bangkok and we landed at Heathrow on time. I thought I would get a story in the bag straight away, hence the approach to Willie Mason at the carousel. Rejection. You get used to it after a while, covering rugby league.
Our daughter, Melanie, who worked in London, in events management, was waiting to greet me, and that lifted my spirits.
My accommodation was The Marriott, Earl’s Court, where I met the team’s coach driver, Derek Begg from Halifax, in the heart of rugby league territory, ‘up north’.
The Kangaroos’ first training run was held at posh St Paul’s Cathedral School, Barnes, on the banks of the Thames. After getting a cab to the area, I tried to take a short cut to the rugby fields, via the river walk, but there was a large fence blocking my way, and my futile bush bashing was a cause of much mirth in the ranks of the playing group.
After training I reflected on what had been, and what was to come, over a pint of Spitfire at ‘The Bridge’ pub, near Hammersmith Bridge.
Melanie and I dined at posh Lorenzo’s, South Kensington where we enjoyed Halibut, one of my favorite northern hemisphere seafood meals.
The following day the Australian team’s English liaison officer, Gary Haigh, a former Leeds’ police inspector, kindly gave me a lift to training. He had everything covered, in terms of likely ’emergency’ situations, including a ‘Disabled’, parking sticker.
That afternoon, the ‘Friends of Rugby League Parliamentary Committee’ hosted a reception for the Kangaroos at the House of Commons, and the media was invited. I went along with News Ltd’s contracted photographer, Col Whelan and Sydney Morning Herald’s Steve Mascord.
It was a great honor, to be in those hallowed halls, but the players seemed bored by it all, although there was plenty of food at the buffet, on a balcony overlooking the Thames. The roll-up of MPs was disappointingly small. Maybe there were not that many friends of the code in ‘The House’.
Mascord and I had afternoon tea at a cafe outside Harrods, before I had dinner with Melanie at the excellent Devonshire Arms, Kensington.
The Kangaroos trained at Barnes again the following day and Mascord and I were joined by Australian Associated Press Bureau Chief, Paul Mulvey. Our London cabbie knew a bit about league and stayed to watch some of the session.
That night, the Kangaroos were feted by expatriate Aussies at the Walkabout Bar, Shepherd’s Bush, as news broke that British coach, Brian Noble had omitted Kevin Sinfield from his squad, and named only one halfback – Sean Long. Andy Farrell, 29, was captain and also the oldest man in a squad with an average age of 24.
Melanie and I were invited upstairs with the players at the Walkabout Bar, where the media crew included SkySports commentator, Mick ‘Stevo’ Stephenson (a former Great Britain skipper); English Rugby League media man, John Huxley and Graham Clay, who I introduced to Melanie as Phil Wilkinson. I don’t think Graham was impressed. Graham, a former ‘Rugby League World’ editor and chief executive of Halifax Rugby League Club, was chief of ‘Impress Sport’ at the time, and they had attracted Gillette as Tri-Nations sponsor.
Gary Haigh gave Melanie and I a lift back to Earl’s Court, and we passed the players’ bus, which now included a few females. Aussie back-packers hitching a ride, no doubt.
Hungover, I made the supreme effort the next day and attended a media conference called primarily for the London based, national newspapers. I got a lift there with Australian media manager, Polly McCardell and the man himself, Wayne Bennett, in a London black cab.
Bizarrely, the venue was Groucho’s Private Member’s Club in Soho, with Gillette the hosts. The media conference was poorly run and poorly attended. There was no Steve Mascord, or Paul Mulvey, and the journos who were in attendance, had no idea what to ask, so it was largely up to me. You could tell that Bennett and New Zealand coach, Daniel Anderson were relieved I was there, whereas normally Wayne would prefer if I was a thousand kilometres away.
It was such a beautiful day, I declined the offer of a lift back to Earl’s Court with Polly and Wayne, and walked instead, almost getting lost in Chelsea.
In addition to her day job, Melanie worked part time, behind the bar at ‘Puzzles Pub’, Hammersmith, so, at her invitation, I rolled up to meet some of the regulars, among them Aussie girl, Terree English, a dedicated league fan.
Local chap, ‘Lone Robbie’, looked just that – lonely – so I had a chat to him and shouted him a beer, as he told me about his work in maintenance on the Underground (Tube) rail network. My cabbie back to the hotel was a real Cockney.
Friday, October 22, and it was time to check my hotel account. I nearly expired when I saw the total, most of it for phone calls. I had been trying to send stories, written on my computer, from my room phone, and each time I got the ‘disconnected’, or a ‘failed to send’ message, I was still charged a bucket-load. I know – what about email? Let’s not go there. I was doing the best I could with the technology made available to me.
After seeing the bill, I went into a state of shock, regaining my composure enough to cover training at Loftus Road, where ERL Media boss, John Huxley had steam coming out of his ears. He told me he nearly got the sack over a story I wrote about ‘high farce’ surrounding the looming match between an ANZAC team and English County, Cumbria.
My story concentrated on the state of confusion surrounding the selection of the ANZAC team and also what jersey the team would play in.
The English league thought the story, in which John was quoted, reflected poorly on their administration.
The Loftus Road Test proved a beauty, with Australia winning 32-12, after trailing 12-8 at halftime. There was a great atmosphere at the ground, with Australia’s ‘Fanatics’ huge contributors.
Bennett said the atmosphere gave him goose bumps.
Australian prop, Jason Ryles was tackled in-goal by a spectator, and was quickly sent on his way by Kangaroos’ assistant coach, Craig Bellamy. But then Bellamy was chipped by a security officer for manhandling the offender. The security officer obviously wasn’t doing his job.
“What was I supposed to do?” Bellamy told me. “He crashed tackled Ryles.”
There also was a male streaker, who WAS tackled by security officers, as play carried on nearby.
Bundaberg Brothers’ league identity, John Rea, father of former Brisbane Brothers, North Sydney and London Broncos’ star, Tony Rea, was in the crowd and I caught up with him back at The Marriott.
I woke on the Sunday, feeling happy about the stories I had filed for News Ltd, only to get a rocket from sports editors in Australia, because I had not gone hard enough on a rib injury suffered by skipper, Darren Lockyer. I wrote that he was out of the looming match against Great Britain in Manchester, but Mascord wrote he was likely to miss the rest of the tournament. The truth was somewhere in the middle.
I was filthy with Australian team medico, Dr Hugh Hazard, who had given me a different version to what he gave Mascord. Such is life. Now, about that hotel bill.
1 Australia’s 2004 Tri-Nations squad
2 The Australians train at St Paul’s Cathedral School, London
4London, Autumn 2004
5 Steve Ricketts at Westminster
6 Sydney Morning Herald’s Steve Mascord (left, holding tape recorder) and News Ltd photographer, Col Whelan before the Parliamentary Reception for the Kangaroos, in 2004
7 Melanie Ricketts (right) and Terree English.