Kelvin Skerrett was one of the most fearsome Rugby League players in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Having played for Hunslet, he forced his way into the Great Britain team as a Bradford Northern player before Wigan came calling in the summer of 1990.
He was the cornerstone of a tremendous pack that didn’t just win multiple medals, but they represented Great Britain en masse in 1992 when the Lions thrashed Australia in Melbourne.
‘SuperKel’ was the first professional player to insist on having a clause in his contract that would make him a free agent when it expired, meaning his next club didn’t have to pay a transfer fee – and could therefore pay him more.
How influential on your career were your dad Ernie and your uncle Trevor?
I watched my dad play when I was a kid and I watched Trevor a lot when he played professionally. He was a big influence. I followed them into rugby, but if they’d played football, I’d have made a lot more money! Trevor and I never played against each other. I was at Hunslet in Division Two when he was in Division One. Then he went from Leeds to Keighley around the time I signed for Bradford Northern. It would have been frightening to play against him. As I’d seen him tackle, I’d have played on the other side of the pitch! He was a world-record signing for Hull, and he was due to captain the Great Britain tour in 1984 before he got injured, so he was clearly one of the top players.
Why did you sign for Hunslet?
When I signed, I could have gone to Hull. They offered me the same contract as Garry Schofield, but my uncle and dad advised me to sign for Hunslet and be a free agent after three years. I was the first player to do that. I played in a pre-season friendly for Hunslet against Halifax. Arthur Bunting came to watch me play, which resulted in Hull offering me a £36,000 contract. But I wanted to be a free agent and control my future. Hull were not interested in this as it could have opened the door for every player to want a similar contract. Hunslet were unable to match Hull’s money, but I accepted a three-year deal at £2,000 a season, as long as I could be a free agent when it expired. It was a gamble. You don’t know if you’re going to make it, but I had belief in myself along with some sleepless nights with injuries and doubt, but what a ride! £36,000 was a lot to turn down in 1984.
You made your Hunslet debut on 2nd September 1984 in a 32-10 defeat at Oldham. Why did you only play the first 13 matches of the season?
I broke my back in two places. I chipped two of the vertebrates in a scrum. I played the week after and it just wasn’t right. Back then, you had to go to hospital on your own, so I went to A & E, told the doctor I’d played another game with it, and he couldn’t believe it.
I did three seasons with Hunslet, and they ended up getting promoted [in 1987], although I was in dispute with them and missed a lot of the run-in. Hunslet wanted to re-sign me after the three years, but I was getting interest from other clubs, and Hunslet didn’t want to pay as much as Bradford. I missed the back end of the season because they wouldn’t pick me over the dispute, but we had a good side and they still got promoted. When I first signed, they had Graham King who played all his career there, even though he had other clubs after him. He was always on the fringes of Great Britain, but he probably played for the wrong club. He was a cracking scrum-half. Johnny Wolford was the loose forward. He was like Harry Pinner but slower! He was a great ball handler.
What happened when you became a free agent?
After three seasons at Hunslet, it paid off, and I was able to negotiate my own contract with no transfer fee, but only after Hunslet tried to stitch me up, which resulted in a tribunal. I moved to Bradford Northern and did the same again. Then it really paid off because I had performed well for Bradford and Great Britain, so when I became a free agent again, clubs went nuts because they could sign a Great Britain prop with no transfer fee to pay. They just had to pay my contract, and I chose Wigan.
You played in an excellent Bradford side that was unlucky not to win more than it did.
I joined them in the summer of 1987. We won the Yorkshire Cup in a replay against Castleford. We also lost 2-0 to Wigan in the first round of the Challenge Cup. That was the start of their run of wins in the cup that lasted eight years. It was muddy. Wigan had a great side. Joe Lydon kicked a penalty. While everyone was arguing over the penalty, Joe nicked five or ten metres to make the kick easier. We were gutted to lose that.
Tell us about your brief sojourn with Western Suburbs in 1989 along with Ellery Hanley and Garry Schofield.
I was on the fringes of Great Britain selection and wanted to experience playing in the Australian league. John Bailey, the Wests coach, didn’t seem to want me there though. Three players coming in meant three local lads going out. I was an unknown compared to Ellery and Garry, but I had a good time and made friends. Graham Mackay later came to Bradford. Brendan Tuuta came to Featherstone and Castleford.
I didn’t impress myself at Western Suburbs. My style was to play together as a pack, but I remember a fight at South Sydney one day when one of my team-mates grabbed my arms and chest, and I got hit in the face! ‘Shouldn’t you be grabbing the opposition?’ I thought. We weren’t winning, and I felt like I was getting pushed out by the coach. I decided to leave because I wasn’t playing. He asked what I would be doing when I went back. I’d hopefully have a good season and play for Great Britain, I replied. I don’t think he rated my chances of that, but I saw him when I was on the Great Britain tour in 1992, and he said I’d obviously done okay. If we’d worked together, things would have been much better for both of us.
What are your memories of Great Britain’s series victory over the Kiwis in 1989?
Things fell into place for me when I came back to England and I was called up by Great Britain. We lost the first Test to the Kiwis. It was so much quicker than a league game. If you got tired, you just had to keep going. The Kiwis were on form that day. We played a basic game, one-up rugby, and we didn’t test them enough. Malcolm Reilly thought I’d done okay and picked me for the second Test. That’s when Steve Hampson was sent off at the start for headbutting Gary Freeman. I remember Steve being so gutted at half-time. He was crying, saying how much he had let everyone down. I was so impressed by him being so honest. I never did that when I got sent off! We had to play 79 minutes with 12 men, but if you stick together, you can still do okay. Teams shouldn’t fall apart when they have someone sent off. Central Park was the best place to play the third Test. It felt like we had a 14th man with the crowd behind us. The team got stronger through the series. We were probably shellshocked in the first Test, but the more we trained together, the better we got, and we won the series. It was a brilliant experience.
You were then selected to tour New Zealand at the end of the season.
I was injured and missed the start of the tour. I was sent to Australia for a few weeks to have a knee operation in Sydney. I came back in for the Test series in New Zealand. I don’t think I played very well though. We were getting beaten in the second Test, and I remember saying, ‘We’ve got ‘em here’, and I made a break, found Garry Schofield, and Martin Offiah scored. Mike Gregory was a great captain and a great guy. I followed him like a sheep on and off the pitch! He was a good friend.
Did Maurice Lindsay tap you up on that tour, as you were soon wearing Wigan colours?
No, it was more or less sorted beforehand. I had an agreement for another deal with Bradford when I returned from Australia, but when they went back on their word over something, that gave me the chance to walk away because Wigan had made me such a good offer. Maurice had spoken to me during the 1989 series with New Zealand and said Wigan were very interested in me. They offered me extortionate money, so I was delighted when Bradford changed their minds. Who wouldn’t want to go and play for Wigan, especially for a lot more money?
*In part two next week, Skerrett discusses why it took him a while to settle in at Wigan, his notorious disciplinary record and whether or not he actually qualified for Wales, who he captained.
*This interview has recently been published in Richard de la Rivière’s new book, ’50 Wigan Legends in their Own Words’, which is available at totalrl.com/shop.