There have been a few times in the last 3 years when I really have felt like pinching myself when I find myself sitting opposite someone I admired on the playing field. Especially rugby league, as the first game I watched week in week out as a ‘grown up’ – with football coming first as a teenager.
One such person is Mike Forshaw, a rugby league legend – a Twitter connection allowed me to arrange an interview with him when I travelled to the North West to watch the World Club Series. I’d been intrigued to see that he was now Defence Coach with the Sale Sharks having lost track of him once he retired from playing the ‘other’ code and was looking forward to finding out how the change of code had come about.
We met in a Costa Coffee in Warrington and with hot drinks in front of us chatted about Mike’s career. As is my way we went back to the beginning with a few standard questions before going into more detail.
Mike’s first rugby memory was playing at Wigan St Pats at the age of 11 – the more time I spend in and around Wigan the more I understand that Rugby League is in the blood, in common with many, Mike played football and some rugby union too, but loved the physical side of the rugby and had the same dream as many local lads of playing rugby league for Wigan. That dream became a reality when Mike signed for Wigan at the tender age of 17.
I asked who was the most influential person in his early years in the game and Mike didn’t hesitate in naming his school PE teacher Derek Birchall at Whelley Middle School as the rugby league coach at the school it’s easy to imagine why.
Mike played in the Cherry and White of Wigan between 1987 and 1993 making 41 appearances, in his words he was a young fish in a talented pool. The team were League Champions 5 times between 1987-1993 and had such legends as Joe Lydon, Shaun Edwards, Ellery Hanley, Andy Gregory, Kevin Iro and Shaun Wayne on their squad list.
In those glory days for Wigan it was a tough time to be a young player, Mike wanted to play every week and was given an offer he couldn’t refuse by Wakefield – he joined them as their captain at the tender age of 23 – giving him his desire to lay first team rugby. He played 70 games at Wakefield before joining Leeds Rhinos.
The day he signed another young Wigan player signed on the dotted line at Leeds – one Terry Newton. Mike drove Terry to and fro, obviously becoming quite close to him as he did so. Terry’s suicide shook the whole rugby league world especially those who’d been close to him; Mike spoke about the day he found out the sad news, and recalled the shock, sadness and disbelief he felt. The bonds made on the playing field are strong.
Mike had 2 seasons at Leeds before they engaged their new coach Dean Bell in 1996 and Mike saw this as his time to move on. To my surprise he headed to rugby union and Saracens, he spent a year at the club at a time when the likes of Michael Lynagh were there. It was a bold move and one that would lay some foundations for his future.
Rugby League was however calling Mike, literally, Matthew Elliot called him to come back to the game and play for Bradford Bulls. He was joining a fine set of players with Robbie Paul as captain, James Lowes, Paul Anderson and Sonny Nickle to name a few. They finished the year top of the Stones Bitter Superleague with a record of 20 wins from 22 played. Amazingly one of the 2 losses was to London Broncos – who finished 2nd that year! ( I write that as a long suffering Broncos fan)
Bradford also made the final of the Challenge Cup, losing to St Helens. The average attendance at home games was over 14,000 and the highest over 18,000 these were good days for the Yorkshire club. Mike gained his tag as the ‘Ultimate Professional’ as well as a place in the Great Britain squad, amassing 17 international caps. His first was at Old Trafford against Australia and a win! Memorable times! As Bulls excelled so did Mike and he was part of the Dream Team in 1999.
As well as speaking about good memories I asked Mike which was his worst moment as a player and he recounted an infection he picked up after an operation in 2000 while he was at Bradford. He was in hospital over both Christmas and New Year, the infection took 13 weeks to clear, leaving Mike weak – not so weak that he wasn’t at his best on the rugby pitch – he won Man of The Match on his first game back!
In common with many ex professional players I’ve spoken to Mike had the future in mind while he was playing, taking a Sports Science Degree. He’d tried a degree in Surveying but decided that really wasn’t his thing, so went the route of fitness, one of the things he’d always been into – and as the photo below shows still is! It took 6 years but he passed his degree which was to serve him well.
Mike made 157 appearances for the Bulls between the years 1997-2003 leaving them to spend a year with Warrington Wolves, he retired on his own terms at the age of 34. He stayed with Warrington as their Strength and Conditioning Coach until November 2006 before heading back to the place he started. He returned to Wigan Warriors in December 2006 to work as the S & C Coach under Brian Noble. A short spell with the RFL had preceded both posts.
Rugby Union was niggling away for Mike and when things started to change at Wigan when Ian Lenagan took the reins he started to consider a move. There was an offer from Dai Young at Cardiff Blues but a call from Eric Elwood new Director of Rugby at Connacht Rugby took Mike’s interest. A flight to Galway and a meeting with Elwood and Mike had a one year deal signed up – he took the post of Defence Coach at the start of the 2010/11 season.
With 2 young children this was a brave move, but it was a move that would build Mike’s future in union, the deal included plenty of fights home to see his family. Connacht was a great place to serve an ‘apprenticeship’ in the game. Connacht finished 7th in Mike’s first year and he was signed on for a further 2 years helping to take them to the Heineken Cup.
Mike’s time in Ireland was a success but with changes on the horizon, including Pat Lam being brought in, it was time for him to move on again. Elwood had this to say in February 2013 when it was announced that Mike would leave at the end of the season.
“When I took the job as Director of Rugby, I wanted to appoint a Defensive Coach because I felt this was crucial for us to progress and move forward as an organisation.
“The key when hiring people is that they are a good person and a good fit for your organisation and we got the right person in Mike. He is an extremely disciplined individual and after winning all major trophies in his Rugby league career the players respected his values and work ethic.
“One of Mike’s strengths was his technical work in both the tackle and wrestle areas. We found this hugely beneficial, particularly in the off-season. He is a fantastic motivator and always got the best out of players.
“We want to thank Mike for all the good work he’s done for Connacht Rugby over the last three years. We wish him every success for the future in whatever path he takes. We have nothing but praise for Mike and wish him well in the future.”
It is clear that Mike had added to his skill set considerably and Steve Diamond and Sale Sharks were to realise that he’d be the best man for the role as their defence coach. With his family home in Wigan this was a job made for Mike, he joined up with the Sharks in the summer of 2013. Interestingly he’s been joined by Paul Deacon a former Bradford Bulls team mate, Deacon joined the club in the summer of 2015 as attack and kicking coach. I’m fairly sure that’s a unique combination in the Premiership.
What was plain as Mike and I talked was that this is one rugby player who always had an eye on his future and he made the moves he needed to ensure his ongoing success. I’m certain that ‘Ultimate Professional’ label persists in his role off the pitch, I think I’ll badger him for the opportunity to see him at work with the Sale Sharks. The Sharks are sitting mid table with 14 games played at the time of writing this and remain unbeaten at home – I’m not sure that any of the others in the Premiership can match that this year. I for one will be watching Mike’s career with great interest.