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Phil Jackson Interview

Sean Fagan of

For the first half a century of rugby league in Australia, there was a well-beaten path from Brisbane and Sydney to the north of England. Players sought the big earnings on offer from English clubs and never returned - from Albert Rosenfeld to Arthur Clues.

It wasn't until the 1960s that AustraPhil Jacksonlian clubs in NSW, thanks to the "one-armed bandits", were able to attract players to come the other way.

We soon saw many Englishmen settle in Australia including Dick Huddart, David Bolton, John Gray, Cliff Watson and Tommy Bishop.

But the first player to turn out for an Aussie club has largely been forgotten.

Yet his contributions to the game are no less than many other "name" players.

Now residing in the southern NSW town of Wagga Wagga is three time Wembley finalist and Great Britain Test captain of the 1950s Phil Jackson.

Phil Jackson is Barrow's most capped player in its over 125 year history, making 226 first-team appearances in his ten years with the Cumbrian (or for a time Lancashire) club.

Dubbed the 'Prince of Centres' in the 1950s he represented Great Britain 27 times, played in two World Cup competitions (winning in 1954) and twice toured with the British Lions to Australia and New Zealand. Phil Jackson also represented England, the Northern Rugby League XIII, the British Services and Lancashire.

Phil Jackson, alongside Willie Horne and Jimmy Lewthwaite, was an inaugural inductee into the Barrow Raiders Rugby League Hall Of Fame when it was launched in 2001.

Lewthwaite, Jackson and Horne - Barrow's finest

RL1908's Sean Fagan recently caught up with Phil for a chat about his rugby league career, both in England and in Australia...

RL1908: Can you go back to beginning and tell us how you got started in league?

Phil Jackson: I went to a small school in Barrow in Furness - the district which is a peninsular in Cumbria, it just goes out into the Irish Sea and Barrow's on the end of it. It's a ship building town. It's a bit of a rugby league outpost - there are 3 clubs in Cumbria, that's Workington, Whitehaven and Barrow. Its about a 2 hour trip now to the nearest main rugby league town which is Wigan.

I grew up in Barrow but I'm a Canadian actually. I went to Barrow when I was about 3 with my parents and then I went to the local school, Risedale School. Strangely enough it's only a smallish school - not even there anymore - but there are, including myself, 3 English Captains of Great Britain Rugby League come from there - Bill Burgess in the 30s, Willie Horne and myself.

I went to work as an apprentice in a ship yard called Vickers and they had a works rugby (union) team. Id played rugby league at school and I captained the Barrow School Boys Team just after the 2nd World War. Then at 15 I left school and went straight into open age with Vickers Rugby Union Club, Vickers Sports Club.

RL: When did you move across to league?

PJ: Well, it was a big rugby league town Barrow, and I was offered professional terms and like most people of that time then I could use the money. I was familiar with Rugby League and I used to go and watch the Barrow team, was always an enthusiast and I signed up for Barrow at 18. That was 1950 and we went to Wembley that first year at Barrow. Willie Horne was the Captain - in the 50's we had a top side at Barrow, nearly all local lads too.

RL: Barrow had some great players - Jim Lewthwaite, Dennis Goodwin, Willie Horne - how good were those guys?

PJ: They were great. We had about 7 Internationals in the team. When Willie Horne was Captain in the Great Britain side in '52, his half- back was a lad that was playing for Barrow, Teddy Toohey. He was the half-back and Frank Castle on the wing. And Jack Grundy, he came on the '57 World Cup.

Willie Horne was the absolute legend and an icon - if you ever get on about Willie I could tell you a few things about him. We played in Challenge Cup Finals - we beat Workington Town and then we got beaten by Leeds by a bit of bad luck. I'm not sure of the years now. We played Wigan in '50 and then Workington Town and then Leeds.

Leeds player Lewis Jones gets airborne to avoid the dive of Barrow's Phil Jackson - Wembley Final 1957

RL: When you beat Workington, what happened after the game back in Barrow?

PJ: It was amazing. Similar to the turn out that Newcastle (NSW) has when they win. The whole town turned out. As a matter of fact, some even came from Lancaster which is about 60 miles away, that's a bit like the beginning of the peninsular and the whole peninsular was lined with people. It was amazing.

RL: So you had a little party?

PJ: Well no, we didn't use to party a lot in those days you know. Drinking wasn't a part of our culture like in Australia, you know. We used to have a drink on a Saturday and that was it, that was all. We had, compared with nowadays, pretty quiet time, but we did celebrate. We were given a function hosted by the Town Council and that sort of thing, you know, but we didn't have a lot of impromptu parties, no, we were pretty quiet compared with nowadays.

RL: And what did you make of Wembley?

PJ: Oh fantastic, yeah, the first time it was an awesome experience actually for an 18 there was 90,000 odd there for the Wigan final. I forget what the score was 12 - 2 or something like that. It's a funny thing, it's hard to play your own game at Wembley you know with the occasion and the surroundings and everything. It wasn't until later in the game you started to settle down and realised it was just a football game, you know.

I remember one of the lads, Huey McGregor, was telling me when we first started the game, his legs wouldn't move with nerves you know and the open spaces and crowd. It's entirely different after being there once. You play better when you get there in later years. You get there again with a bit of luck. I consider myself lucky being able to go 3 times. Some players play all their career and never get there once you know.

RL: So League in that period was very popular, very big crowds?

PJ: Oh yes, it was very strong up in Barrow and of course Wigan, St Helen's down in Lancashire and Yorkshire, yeah, very strong. And in those days we were stronger than the Australians, you know. We came out here (to Australia) in '58. We won it in '56 in England and came out here in '58 and won it.

RL: When you were playing for Barrow did you come against a lot of Aussies?

PJ: Not a lot. Not compared with nowadays but in those days they had a team called Other Nationalities.

RL: Did you play against them?

PJ: Oh sure and they used to beat us too. They had a fantastic side and the likes of, there was a big player, great Australian player, Arthur Clues in the second row.

RL: The Leeds fellow.

PJ: Yeah, that's right. Gee you're well informed! And Harry Bath, He and Clues in the second row. And we had a lad that captained us here, that was Dave Valentine. He was a Scot and they didn't have a Scottish team so he was with the Other Nationalities and Ken Kearney was in it, the hooker, a bloke called I think it was McMasters, a front rower, Wallaby Bob McMasters - an Australian. Brian Bevan on the wing, Remember him? Lionel Cooper on the other wing. Oh it was an awesome side and they were a hell of a good side.

RL: And how long was your career at Barrow?

PJ: I signed in 1950 and then in 1958 after the Lions tour here, I'd had a shoulder injury and that sort of thing and I hadn't had a lot of knee trouble. But when I got home the season was going again and Id had '57 and '58 tours to Australia. I suppose my knees just packed it up and we got back in about August when the season was underway. I had 3 weeks off and I went down to Torquay with my wife and had a spell.

And when I began playing again my right knee started - it were giving me a lot of trouble, swelling and I couldn't play and went on for weeks and weeks and tried. After I trained it swelled up and then I went for an exploratory operation from an eminent surgeon in Leeds and that shot me down in flames. Put a big stop to it that is. It took me 12 months to get on the field but it wasn't good enough and I retired from football in England. That was in about 1959. I was in the stand watching the Kangaroos team which contained all the newcomers like Raper and Irvine and Gasnier, you know. They were a great team and I was in the stand with my knee watching.

Then what happened... Id attempted to come to Australia earlier 'cause I liked it after the '54 tour. I'd liked to have come to Australia to play but the transfers of Englishmen to Australia... it wasn't done. I don't whether they weren't allowed. But in England when you signed for a team then, it was for life, there were no term contracts. Once you were with a club that was it. I tried to get away from the Barrow club a few times.

RL: Ive heard that you actually sat out a few weeks at one period, trying to get a release?

Phil Jackson PJ: Yeah, I sat out 6 weeks hoping they'd give me a transfer but they wouldn't. I would've liked to have gone to Leeds 'cause my girlfriend was living there then and had approaches from Leeds and Wakefield and you know, and these teams were stronger teams, stronger clubs and they were getting better money than I was at Barrow.

We were only getting, I was only getting very ordinary money with Barrow. Like remember Billy Boston. Billy signed for Wigan and he was getting, I'd been all those years as an international and Billy's getting a lot better money as were the Wigan lads than I was at Barrow you know and then as I say I were a young bloke and I wanted a change.

RL: You were first selected for Great Britain in the Lions touring team in '54?

PJ: That's right. Billy Boston and I were in the Royal Signals (National Service) playing rugby union. A place called Cadrick Camp on the Yorkshire Moors. Billy and I were playing for the British Army rugby union team at Hanover when we found out we'd been picked to come on tour. It was a wonderful thrill, particularly when you're doing your National Service then to spend a couple of months of a rugby (league) tour is good.

RL: How long did it take you to get to Australia 'cause that was the first Lions tour via a plane wasn't it?

PJ: It was the Super Constellation - it was in the news a few months ago actually, I think one of them flew here. It was one of the first big airliners the Super Constellation. I think it was 5 days and 4 nights or something and was a hell of a hard trip, particularly for the big blokes which we had quite a few of then.

We traveled through India and we had about 6 to 8 stops I think. We were stopping at places like Karachi and Jakarta and Bombay, all those, you know, we weren't used to that weather. Sitting there all that time, all the big fellas had all their ankles swelled up. We couldnt stray from the plane and you know these are big fellas, broad shoulders, there wasn't a lot of room and yeah it was a nightmare of a trip actually.

RL: So you got to Sydney and you played your first Tests at the SCG. What did you make of that? I think there was about 65,000 there wasn't there?

PJ: Oh yeah, absolutely fantastic, awesome actually. How it happened is quite an interesting story. In 1952 against the Kangaroos one of the English centres was Douggie Greenhall.

He had a special way of tackling, Douggie. He was a ball and all tackle - it included knees, elbows and all that sort of thing. Anyway, he caught one of the Kangaroo players with it and the Australian went off and it created a hell of a lot of furore about it.

And when we all got to Sydney in 54 everyone was waiting to see Douggie Greenhall and the press were absolutely fanatical about. He's only a slim little guy. Douggie said to himself they're going to kill me here.

So Douggie didn't play very well here and I took his place and that was my break you know.

RL: You lost the first Test?

PJ: Yeah, on a wet day which suited us really. Billy Boston had a big game, scored a great try.

RL: What happened in that NSW versus the Lions game that was abandoned in the second half? Did you play in that?

PJ: No I didn't. That was a game, my feeling is it was on a Wednesday. It seems strange now to play a game 3 days prior to a Test on a Saturday. But thats what we did. We picked the Test team and kept them off and picked what was left for the Wednesday game. We had a lot of very willing forwards then who called themselves the "Wednesdays" cause they weren't making the Test team you know. Anyway, there was a hell of a big brawl and Douggie Greenhall played in that match and of course the Aussies were looking for Douggie.

RL: Do you know what ignited the fight?

PJ: Oh hell, yeah! There was I think Greg Hawick (NSW) was in that and he and Douggie clashed. Maybe Wellsie (NSWs Harry Wells) too. The referee called it off. He couldn't get them to play football. I think the referee panicked a bit but it was pretty willing you know. He just got fed up of it all.

RL: Apparently referee Aub Oxford gave the game away after that.

PJ: Did he? Well, that wouldn't surprise me, but it was a very difficult game to referee but maybe he panicked a bit and called it off you know.

RL: So that was your first visit to Australia, did you go to Wagga Wagga as part of that tour didn't they?

PJ: Yeah we did and there's a bloke, well he's living up in Tumut now, that had played against us that day, a lad called Doug Cameron, a little half back. He scored a couple of tries against us. We played at the old Showground. Never thought I'd end up living here did I? Yeah we played Riverina here. They were always a strong side in those days too.

But in those days, as a matter of fact, in those days, I don't know whether it was that particular year or not long after, Greg Hawick was representing Australia in Tests while playing for the Wagga Wagga Kangaroos here. Which is a team that I follow now and strangely enough Greg's got my jersey at home and I've got his Test jersey we swapped after a Test. Never thought we'd end up both living in Wagga you know!

RL: You lost the deciding 3rd Test of the 54 series back in Sydney - 20 to 16 in front of nearly 70,000 fans?

PJ: Yeah I reckon we got done by in the last Test. Harry Wells scored a try for Australia, but I reckon it was a double movement. As a matter of fact I said to Harry at the Kangaroos reunion recently that it were a bloody double movement. Orrr, get out of it! he says. Harry and I are good mates now. Anyway, that won them the game as the winning try so I consider we were a bit unlucky there.

RL: Then as soon as you got back to England it was just in time for a World Cup in France?

PJ: Yeah, we won it. A lot of the guys didn't go who'd gone to Australia. Most were married and hadn't seen their wives and kids and we were all very weary. And when the World Cup was calling, it was only a matter of weeks after we'd been home. A few of them couldn't get there, the more experienced players, so they picked you know Mick Sullivan for instance, he hadn't even represented Yorkshire and he was picked and you know how good Mick turned out to be. There was a lad David Rose on the wing to me, I just forget what the team was, but there weren't many that had been on the Lions tour.

RL: You beat Australia again, you beat them quite easily.

PJ: We beat em, we beat em quite easily, then we had a good victory. France were very strong then too and we beat them and they had a good side and we beat them in the Final in a great game.

RL :Was Dave Valentine a big part of that?

PJ: Oh yes, sure and as I say we were a lot of inexperienced lads and Dave got us all together and got a great team spirit. There was one lad playing a big part, Gerry Helme at half back, he'd been on the tour. He was a very experienced man at the half back, he played great stuff and I was in good form then, I was playing well and I got some write ups in my memorabilia stuff about the World Cup in France and it was a thrill to win it.

RL: Was there much of a welcome at home?

PJ: Not great, no. Not great. We arrived back in London you know and well not many people in London care much about rugby league. No never mind them you know so it wasn't a really big deal. Strangely enough I think, I don't know whether I mentioned it to you, we got the shittiest little medal. It was, of course, looking back, not long after the war, about 9 years after the war but it was still having an effect.

So we got the shittiest little medal and I've got them now, this little medal, insignificant medal and a pen knife. The pen knife's got all green mould in it, but only last year I got a nice looking medal from the UK. They struck another medal made for us for the World Cup winners. I have it here now. It's a more fitting medal for World Cup winners you know it's a nice one - to get it how many years later? 40 years later! Quite a thrill actually.

RL: So '55 rolled around and you beat the Kiwis pretty easily.

PJ: We had it over the Kiwis in those days. Mind you after a hard tour in Australia and you're looking at going home but sort of going to New Zealand is sort of an after thought you know and there the Kiwis are waiting for us in 6 inches of crap on Carlisle Park. It was a real muddy ground then and the big Maoris waited with a half-cocked stiff arm you know and they're pretty hard days. They were usually pretty hard games but we managed to beat New Zealand in those days.

Phil Jackson scores a try in Britain's World Cup win over NZ at Bordeaux in 1954

RL: Ken Kearney's Kangaroos toured in 1956 - a great win for you?

PJ: That's right, we had the drop on them. We had quite a good side then and we didn't have too much trouble beating them. Although I think they nailed us in the second Test, it was in knee-deep mud and we were favourite then in the mud but they got together and they beat us but I forget the scores. I think we ended up winning the series pretty comfortably.

RL: Ive got it here that in the third Test, you won 19-0, but apparently it wasn't that much of an inspiring game.

PJ: Oh I forget. You know I forget the individual games now Sean you know. I remember winning it and I remember that I collected a stiff-arm off Keith Holman. In those days of course you had to see the game out, there were no replacements. They put me on the wing and I had a good game and scored a try that game. I think on the wing as I can't remember a thing about it.

Keith always reminds me about it at the reunions, I put you in your place you Pommy Bastard! he always says to me - and you know, he did! He copped me with a beauty. Great little fella Keith and he was a tough little bugger of a half back too Of course in those days stiff arms is part and parcel of the game. There was a little bit more of it going on in England. It was more par for the course in England than it was in Australia and of course the Aussie press branded us head hunters all the time. I suppose we were but it was part of the game in England, you know.

RL: Was it out in the open or in back play more?

PJ: Not so much in back play, no just in the tackle and short arm jabs coming from underneath and I'd never had any trouble off the ball in back play. I never had trouble in off the ball stuff until I came to Australia.

RL: 1957 and you were back in Australia yet again, for another World Cup.

PJ: We should have won that I think - it was a bit of a surprise result that we didnt.

RL: After that World Cup, apparently you went back through South Africa?

PJ: We did. No, we first went to New Zealand, oh gee we'd had enough then. Well we went with the Frenchman that had been here in the World Cup through South Africa and played a few games and unfortunately, I couldn't play I'd had an ankle that just wouldn't come good. Anyway, the man in charge in South Africa RU in those days, Darnie Craven, he was anti rugby league and we weren't even allowed to play.

We were playing the Frenchmen in demonstration games and he wouldn't even allow us to play in Johannesburg, we were kicked out to a place about 60 miles away to a place called Benoni and I think we had a game in a place called Orange and down in Durban and they were a waste of time but it was bad luck because the Frenchmen didn't have a decent side, well they weren't having a go. But the strange thing was the Frenchmen were training twice a day, we didn't train at all and we'd go out and flog 'em. I think it was supposed to help popularise the game in South Africa but Craven just wiped us you know so we didn't do any good there it was just a waste.

Phil Jackson makes another Lions Tour to Australia and New Zealand,
before making a permanent move "down under"....
Part 2 of interview

Copyright 2006 - Sean Fagan. All rights reserved - the article above may not be reproduced (in full or part) in any form without written permission.
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