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Long Read Interview: Stuart Fielden

Legendary Bradford Bulls forward Stuart Fielden says the IMG proposals could turn out to be a major positive for his former club.

Fielden had a trophy-laden spell at Odsal in the late nineties and early noughties as ‘Bullmania’ took Super League by storm with Bradford becoming the competition’s dominant team.

But that all unravelled quickly and as players such as Fielden moved on, the Bulls were relegated from Super League in 2014 less than eight years after they were World Club Champions.

Financial difficulties then saw the club go into liquidation in 2017, before being resurrected, and now the Bulls find themselves struggling around the middle of the Championship.

However, IMG’s recent proposals to overhaul rugby league and scrap promotion and relegation in favour of a grading system could offer a lifeline to the former Super League champions.

A new 25,000-capacity stadium has been proposed by Bradford Council on the Odsal site, to underline the club’s intent, and former great Fielden believes Super League needs Bradford to return.

“Super League is at its strongest when there is a Bradford team in it,” Fielden told Serious About Rugby League. “You need cities in Super League and Bradford is a big one with a historical team.

“There is a massive fan base there and a strong Super League needs a strong Bradford team. If the IMG proposals help them get back up there then that can only be positive.”

Despite highlighting the positives for the proposed changes could mean for Bradford, Fielden is also cautious about the financial improvements the club needs to make to start mixing it with the big boys again.

“There is still a gulf there though,” said Fielden. “Those teams in the bottom half of Super League would probably still give Bradford a hiding so there is work to do.

“They have to make up that gap in money and build up financially too to close that and make up that difference to become a top team again.

“The honest part is that if you want the best players you have to be able to pay them. The big teams have the best players in Super League and Bradford have to try get back to that.“

Speaking on IMG’s overall proposals for the sport, having signed a 10-year agreement with the Rugby Football League, Fielden believes they could help transform rugby league and give it a much-needed boost.

“If I’m honest I don’t know too much about it (the IMG proposals) but from what I’m hearing I think it sounds promising because licensing is something that was tried before and wasn’t given a fair run.

“The game needs to improve because the RFL have done their best at putting money in and trying to grow, but the sport just isn’t on most people’s radar because of football, cricket, rugby union – there is just too much compeition.

“I think they need to focus on raising the profile and bringing money into the sport because we need to start attracting the best players to Super League instead of losing them to the NRL.

“If you look back to when I played we had superstars over here in their prime, like Andrew Johns and Jamie Lyon, but we don’t see that now. We need to get back to that and hopefully we can with this new structure.”

Fielden, who was once rugby league’s most expensive player when he moved from Bradford to Wigan for £450,000 in 2006, believes Super League’s salary cap is to blame for the competition falling into the shaddow of the NRL.

While the cap in the UK has remained almost stagnant for a decade, the NRL has seen their salary cap triple in the same period.

Thanks to huge TV broadcast and sponsorship deals, Australia’s premier competition only continues to grow allowing them to keep and attract the world’s best talent.

“Since 2010 onwards I think the only reason Australian players come to Super League is at the back of their career for the money,” Fielden told Serious About Rugby League.

“You ask any football player, would you want to play in the Championship or the Premier League and Champions League?

“To me that’s what Super League is now, the NRL is the big competition every player wants to get to and it’s because of the difference in the salary cap.

“We are still on £2 million and they are on £6 million, you can’t compete with that. All your top players are now in Australia and there is no reason for them to come over here.

“It’s a nicer place and they have the cash, so there is no incentive for the world’s best players to come here. Super League can only bridge that gap if they sort out their finances and give the players more money.”

During Fielden’s playing days the gap between Super League and the NRL was much closer on the pitch too, highlighted by a flurry of British wins in the World Club Challenge.

The noughties also saw Super League attract some of the world’s biggest names, something that now seems almost impossible despite the marquee player rule.

“In my career we weren’t that far off,” Fielden added. “I didn’t lose a World Club Challenge, we won three out of three.

“The top two or three Super League teams could compete with the NRL and we weren’t a million miles off.

“We had big Joe Vagana come over and Lesley Vainikolo, you had the best players in the world coming over here, the likes of Jamie Lyon, then Adrian Morley and Andrew Johns.

“We had the best players in the world coming to Super League. It made Super League better. Now you don’t and that’s why Super League is what it is. Super League is now a shadow of the NRL.”

Though Fielden recognises that less big-name Australian players in Super League is presenting more of an opportunity for English players, he believes the game in the UK has suffered due to a lack of financial power.

“Super League has had a fall from grace and that’s for one simple reason, the money. We just can’t compete with the NRL, you’re seeing that now. We have significantly less money over here and with less money you have lower standards.

“The best players in the world are not in Super League. The best players in the world are all in Australia, and that includes the best English players and if they are not there now, they will be in a couple of years.

“I have spoken about this before but there was a time when the best Australian players would come here, and that would make our home-grown players better – it would also make our competition better.”

Fielden continued to elaborate on his point, believing that the huge pool of NRL players not only Australia, but also Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand, have to choose from makes it impossible for England to compete.

He added: “The only positive with the best Aussie players staying in Australia is that you are going to have to grow all your own home-grown talent.

“I would like to say it would force teams here to increase their focus on their academy so they get better, but even with this your base is only as big as your top.

“The amount of people playing rugby league is all in the north and it’s not exactly massive.

“Your base is only as big as your top and everyone in Australia plays rugby league, and in two of the biggest states in Queensland and New South Wales.

“It’s like football and the Premier League here, everybody plays it all across the country. Rugby league and the NRL is the same there because a big percentage of the population plays it.

“The percentage of people of Australia’s population that play rugby league would be massive compared to ours, so they are always going to have a higher top.

“They have more people playing the sport so you are going to have more people progress through at the highest level, we can’t compete with that.”

Reflecting back on his own career, perhaps the most famous incident involving Fielden is when he was knocked out by Willie Mason in the 2006 Tri-Series match against Australia in Sydney.

Just minutes into the game in Sydney, Kangaroo prop Mason put what many thought was a cheap shot on Great Britain enforcer Fielden, knocking him out unconscious before a melee ensued.

At the time Fielden was GB’s main man and the most expensive player in the game, with Mason taking the opportunity to land one on his opposing front-rower after the players wrestled following a tackle.

Now 43, Fielden admits to not remembering the rest of the game as he played 40 minutes in the Lions’ memorable 23-12 victory – a triumph that ended the long wait for a win in Australia.

Both players have since retired from playing rugby league, with Fielden claiming that the pair have not spoken since the incident despite Mason later having stints in Super League with Hull KR and Catalans Dragons.

However, speaking to Serious About Rugby League, former Bradford and Wigan great Fielden has revealed that he did offer Mason the opportunity to settle their feud in the boxing ring a few years ago.

“We were in touch with Willie’s agent,” said Fielden. “We offered him £20,000 to come over and have a boxing fight around 2016, and he refused it.

“All he had to do was turn up for it. It would have been amateur rules, which is three two-minute rounds. So yeah, we offered him that.

“We had a venue, financial backing and everything. We offered him it all on a plate to come over and he wasn’t interested.”

If Mason had accepted the bout, he would have likely been the fitter of the pair at the time having just retired from playing rugby league in 2016 after a spell at Catalans – some three years after Fielden had called it a day in 2013.

Fielden believes the fight would have created a great spectacle and admitted he was surprised that Mason turned down the opportunity.

“He’s done a few fights in Australia, I don’t think he’s a slump in that area but it would have been a great event,” Fielden added.

“But no, he just wasn’t interested. I was quite disappointed really because he had just finished playing and he just needed to get on a plane and come over here.

“I’m not sure why he didn’t take me up on it. Maybe he had better things to do over there but I didn’t think it was a bad offer or a bad amount of money for a night’s work.”

Mason’s infamous punch on Fielden brings about another debate – concussion. Concussions are a hot topic in the rugby league world at the moment with 75 former players, including former Great Britain star Bobbie Goulding, heading up a legal claim against the Rugby Football League.

The claim is based on head injuries and what they believe is a failure from the RFL to protect them during their playing days. They believe the game’s governing body didn’t provide necessary protocols to prevent brain injuries like dementia and Alzheimer’s late in life.

An ex-pro not unfamiliar with head injuries is former Bradford Bulls, Wigan Warriros and Great Britain forward Stuart Fielden.

Fielden was on the receiving end of one of the most talked about blows in modern rugby league history, when he was punched by Australia’s Willie Mason during the 2006 Tri-Nations.

Despite clearly being knocked out and suffering from concussion, Fielden wasn’t taken from the field and, reflecting on the incident now, he has no doubt that was the wrong decision.

“In the game against Willie Mason, I got knocked out and I played on for 40 minutes,” Fielden told Serious About Rugby League. “He gave me that cheap hit early on and I have no recollection of the rest of game.

“I must have played on basically unconscious. I can’t remember that game and it was obviously a high-level head injury because I have no memory of it.

“Obviously I should have come off, but I didn’t. I have no idea how I played on but I did and we won.”

Fielden was never far from the thick of the action both on the international stage and in Super League, with his reputation seeing him become a target for opposition forwards.

Elaborating on his experiences with head injuries and the protocols in place when he played, Fielden admits he is suffering the after effects of those blows today.

“Overall I think I have been knocked out about 20 or 30 times,” Fielden revealed. “Then they brought in all the concussion protocols as they try to progress but the honest bit is there is no way to avoid it in rugby league because it is a collision sport.

“I can remember 10 years or so back Jon Wilkin was heading up a union and we were speaking to legal people then about addressing these sorts of areas.

“I have been knocked out loads and I have no doubts there has been a knock on from that even now because every tackle, hit or collision is like a mini car crash.”

Despite this, Fielden has no involvement in the legal case and admits that many of his ex-teammates suffering with head knocks would still do everything and anything to play.

“I can’t really comment on this legal case against the RFL because I don’t know enough about it,” Fielden added.

“You have to look at that duty of care and I guess they have to prove that these brain injuries, dementia and Alzheimer’s, are a result of playing and head injuries.

“You don’t really think about the head injuries and long-term effects when you are playing, because all you want to do is play.

“Players back when I was playing would try to swerve the head test and all the players that have issues now, it is tough, but I still think they would have played.

“I can’t speak for those who are part of the legal claim but I still think they would have all played the game, but it is down to those protocols when they did play I guess.”

Lastly, Fielden spoke again about the NRL during his playing days, revealing details of a proposed transfer that would have seen him go to the NRL and Great Britain team-mate Adrian Morley come the other way.

“When I was at Bradford, they were talking about swapping me for Adrian Morley, so I could go over to the Sydney Roosters, and he could come over here.

“The pound was way stronger than the dollar back then though, and the salary cap in Australia at that time was only $4 million.

“To go over to the NRL back then, you weren’t earning any more than you would do in Super League and there wasn’t much difference in quality between the two competitions.

“In my peak in 2005 at Bradford the money wasn’t really much different, and it would have meant a big change for my family so it never happened.”

This wasn’t the only time Fielden had the chance to go to the NRL though, explaining that he would have made the move down under years later if it wasn’t for injury.

“I nearly went to the NRL a few times,” he added. “I was on my over in 2011. I got permission from Wigan to go but then I ruptured my pec in training.

“The money in the NRL was a lot bigger back then, I would have been about 30 at the time but injuries prevented me going over.

“I had injured my knee a year earlier in 2010 too in training so I wasn’t in the condition I had been. Hindsight is a wonderful thing because I was on my way over there.”

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