An Orrell RUFC Retweet on Twitter and a discussion between a friend, Colin Ratcliffe and Martin Gleeson connected me to this rugby league legend.  Another of those men I watched play Super League over many years.  We weren’t able to meet face to face so the wonders of the internet and FaceTime it had to be.  I was in Birmingham to watch England play cricket and we sorted a morning chat.

I’m always aware that when I talk to someone I consider to be a legend of the game I can just get a bit carried away with chatting, so I had some questions prepared.  We spoke a little about how and where it all started for Martin before we reached that point.

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Martin was born in Orrell/Wigan and brought up in the Springfield area of Wigan ,  he lived in a pub with his grandparents and the Wigan team of the time used to go to the pub.  It’s hard to imagine someone from and living in Wigan being anything but  Warriors fan and it was no different for Martin and his family.  Playing pool with Joe Lydon was a regular feature of Martin’s days in the pub.  He started playing rugby with Andy Farrell’s brothers at  Orrell St James,  Farrell’s Dad was a coach.

At the age of 10 his family moved to Australia where Martin played his junior rugby league with Brad Meyers amongst others, at 17 he aspired to play State of Origin for Queensland but found himself back in England.

For all the young lads aspiring to play for their mighty Wigan there are of course never enough spots in the club to complete all of their dreams and many play across the other clubs in all leagues.  Martin was no exception, he played at 3 other clubs before finding his way to his home town club.

On his return from Australia Martin’s professional career started at Huddersfield where he stayed for 3 years before joining the great St Helens team of the early 2000’s in 2002.  Taking a look at the team who won the Grand Final that year, he was indeed in a supremely talented squad with some of the greats of the game:

Paul Wellens; Darren Albert,  Martin Gleeson,  Paul Newlove, Anthony Stewart;  Paul Sculthorpe, Sean Long; Darren Britt, Kieron Cunningham, Barry Ward, Tim Jonkers, Mike Bennett,Chris  Joynt. Subs: Shontayne Hoppe, Peter Shiels,  John Stankevitch, Micky Higham.

The game features in Martin’s moments later in the interview, he played at St Helens between 2002 – 2004, he was first capped for Great Britain in 2002 and made 20 appearances and 6 in the re-jigged England team in 2008.  26 international appearances in 7 years was no mean feat with the number of international fixtures played.  Martin’s next club move was to Warrington in 2005 where he stayed until 2009.  2005 was a good year for him, he scored 17 tries in 27 matches and was named at Centre in the Super League Dream Team.

2009 was the year that saw Martin back at the team he supported, Wigan, he became an integral part of the team and scored 2 tries in their Grand Final victory in 2010.  He spent time at both Hull and Salford before retiring from playing and is now a coach at Salford, a role he believes is harder than being a player, with no time to switch off.  And so to the fixed questions:

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What was your earliest rugby memory?

Being a child and Wigan were going to Wembley, going to JJB sports, which at that time was one shop on a street in Wigan – and getting a mitre rugby ball at the age of 5.

Can you name the one person who’s had the biggest influence on your career?

Martin didn’t hesitate here, it was his Grandad, as a kid he took him to games, and over to the back field to play and kick the ball

What is your best club rugby memory?

In that amazing year of 2002 St Helens went into what was Martin’s 1st Challenge Cup final and got beaten by Wigan, it was all excitement in the lead up, but this Saints team which had been expected to win, got beaten by Wigan, that was so heartbreaking.  But later that year they beat Bradford 2002 in the Grand Final at Old Trafford.  Winning 19 to 18 – that was probably his best year in rugby.  There was so much fun in that team, the best time to play, camaraderie, going for  beer after the game.  Ian Millward pushed that attitude, one that I see week in week out at Saracens, it breeds success.  A car full from Wigan used to meet and drive over to big rivals Saints for training and home matches.

What is your best international rugby memory?

Beating Australia at Wigan – Martin had served a 4 month suspension for betting then played Australia at the Manchester Stadium – he hadn’t played for 6 months and his first game back was a test match,  he scored the first try,  Paul Sculthorpe and Terry Newton involved too,  he can remember going berserk at scoring, 

What is your worst rugby memory?

Losing that Challenge Cup when it was presumed it’d be won,  it was the only final he was involved in that was lost, the team had a feeling of invincibility -but the match at  Murrayfield dented that.

Which fellow British player do you most admire?

Martin played with this man at both club and international  – Paul Sculthorpe ,  he Sean Long and Kieron Cunningham led the whole thing at Saints,  they upheld standards.  Sculthorpe’s skill level was so high, he wouldn’t be beaten, he had an all round game, he was the complete player. In Martin’s words a smart player.  A proper player, he’d take the game by the scruff of the neck, he was really influential.

He wasn’t a quick stand off –  but he virtually beat the Aussies on his own.  Sean O’Loughlin is comparable.  100Kg and 6ft 2 . He had the lot and won back to back Man of Steel, Paul was the first player to retain the Man of Steel, being awarded the honour in 2001 and 2002  He could do the lot in Martin’s words

Which International player do you most admire?

The thorn in the side  for Great Britain in 2004, was a man named Darren Lockyer, in the  Tri Nations they were beaten by Australia in the last 2 or 3 minutes  and Lockyer was at  another level.  He wasn’t a great defender yet wasn’t weak either, but he always came up with the right play at the right time, he organised the team well.  And was able to break hearts every time.  It was this team, he won the show.

What are your future plans?

Martin is coaching with Salford,  he has Level 2  which is gained  through playing experience – Level 3 the RFL will do this year.  Sean Long was Assistant Coach, and he’d started thinking about things then after coming back from his ban. He’d never really had a serious injury, but fell out of contact with the game for 8 months, he then went on a fitness spree after watching a lower level.  For the first time Martin checked out nutrition and ate in a different way than before – he also did a diploma in Sports Nutrition.  And got back into great shape.  He was back to being focused and took up coaching the Salford U19’s  for half a year then came up to the first team.   So,  that’ll be the future – he’s learning all the time, in man management, finding different ways to break down defences – he is hoping to be a head coach. Martin signed a 3 year deal at Salford, but he may consider a future in rugby union.

‘You don’t have as much time on your hands as a coach, very different to being a player’

It was a pleasure to chat to Martin, he’s been granted a 3 month Testimonial by the RFL and has a Legends game at Leeds planned for August 30th with a Yorkshire v Lancashire match full of stars!

That’s to be followed up with a dinner at the AJ Bell Stadium on October 28th, with Shaun Edwards, who’s a great speaker and Paul Stridgeon and Mark Cueto going along as special guests.

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