A former Prince of England rugby league, Wagga's Phil Jackson has advice but not much faith in their World Cup Final hopes

GLORY DAYS: Former British league star Phil Jackson with the World Cup best-and-fairest trophy he won at the 1957 tournament in Australia (and won by Australia). He also played in Great Britain's 1954 World Cup success in France. Picture: Kieren L Tilly
GLORY DAYS: Former British league star Phil Jackson with the World Cup best-and-fairest trophy he won at the 1957 tournament in Australia (and won by Australia). He also played in Great Britain's 1954 World Cup success in France. Picture: Kieren L Tilly

Wagga’s Phil Jackson won the 1954 rugby league world cup with Great Britain, and a best-and-fairest award at the next, held in Australia in 1957. 

It was another era, alright, of British dominance, and players bestowed titles like Prince Among Centres.

And Jackson, who hails from Barrow in England’s north is far from certain his countrymen can secure a drought-breaking victory against Australia in Saturday night’s World Cup final in Brisbane.

“I don’t give them any hope at all, no,” Jackson says. 

“They’ll have to improve out of sight to be with a chance at all.”

Now 85, Jackson played 27 internationals for Great Britain after growing up in a rugby league town. He was one of three players from his high school to go on and captain their country.

But he’s disappointed in England’s recent record.

The numbers don’t stack up well.

England have lost their last 12 games against Australia. 

They haven’t played in a World Cup final in 22 years.

And they haven’t had success since 1972 when, competing as Great Britain, they drew 10-all with Australia in the final and won by virtue of a better record in the preliminary rounds. 

(In fact, their last win in a final was that 1954 tournament – Jackson’s first – when they beat the French 16-12 in France. Their 1960 success was a different format, with the top team during the tournament taking the title, and no final played. It was the same in 1957 in Australia, won by the host nation). 

Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson

“I think Australia will belt England,” he said. “We used to have ball moves that would move the Aussies one way and we’d end up going the other. Whereas they do nothing now. Bugger all.”

He’ll still be watching closely though and wishes he could be the last to get in the ear of the English players before they run out.  

“I’d like a real good yarn with those lads before they get out,” he said. “I know how the Australians are prepared mentally. And they’re a lot better prepared to go out there and get into it than the English sides are.”

The Kangaroos, captained by Cameron Smith, have Jackson concerned.

“He’s proven to be a very good leader, hasn’t he? And I think he’s got a few too many brains for the modern front-rower,” Jackson says with a laugh.

His is a hearty chuckle… Hahahahaha! And Jackson is generous with it.

He’s not so generous with his thoughts on modern rugby league. And he isn’t about to sugar-coat his opinion just because there’s a World Cup on.

“I think it’s bloody terrible. Repititious, isn’t it? Just a big guy running into the other big guy, all the time. There’s no brains in it or anything. I’m very disappointed in it.”

Leaguies needn’t despair too much, however. You should hear his thoughts on watching rugby union!

But that was, in fact, where a teenage Jackson first made a name for himself.

Phil Jackson at home in Wagga on Friday. Picture: Kieren L Tilly

Phil Jackson at home in Wagga on Friday. Picture: Kieren L Tilly

Brought to rugby by his brother Dennis, Jackson was in first grade at the age of 15 and stayed with the code until he was 18.

By then, he’d made such an impression that he was signed up as a professional rugby league player.

He turned out to be one of Barrow’s best and – despite emigrating to Australia nearly 60 years ago – remains a favourite son.

“In Barrow in the 50s, we had a backline of internationals,” Jackson recalls.

“Jimmy Lewthwaite, he was before me. And Dennis Goodwin… he played for England.

“He made me look like a half-back. I was a big centre but he was 16-and-a-half stone and very mobile for a big man.

“And I used to introduce his opposing centre into the game. I’d run across the field and straighten him up and Dennis just came off me – a short ball, boom, right into him. Hahahahaha.”

When The Daily Advertiser visits on the eve of this 2017 World Cup final, Jackson is wearing a Barrow rugby league jumper – number three on the back, and Phil Jackson, Prince Among Centres embroidered on the front, just underneath the club logo. 

He’s the last remaining member of their 1955 side which went all the way to Wembley in the Challenge Cup, beating Workington Town 21-12 in the final. It’s still Barrow’s only victory in the famed tournament. 

Sixty-two years later, he’s in the Barrow colours, dressed up for a few Friday evening beers at Wagga’s Union Club Hotel with old boys of his adopted club, Kangaroos.

Not that getting out is easy. Jackson laments the trouble his knees give him. He’s had knee replacement surgery on both legs, and the left knee balloons with swelling.

Maybe it was the sidestep all those years ago that’s come back to haunt him, rather than opponents.

“Yes, I had a good sidestep,” he agrees.

“The only thing was, I wasn’t as fast as I would’ve liked to have been. I wish I’d had more pace. If I’d have had the pace of (Reg) Gasnier, you wouldn’t have known which way I went. Because I could beat a man. The only thing I didn’t have was the extra pace. I wasn’t terribly fast.”

Jackson was also renowned for his defence. 

“If I coached teams now it’d be round-the-legs job. Round the legs. With the second man coming over the top,” he says. 

It was a different era alright. 

A time when England was virtually two different countries, split between the south dominated by London, and the north, where rugby league was played in working class towns.

“I was an international rugby league player but I was still working in the shipyard, as a fitter-and-turner, you know,” Jackson says.

“Down south, he’d be in an office. Hahahahaha.”

In fact, Jackson worked on the HMAS Melbourne, previously the HMS Majestic, a Royal Navy ship which was recommissioned after World War II, and later infamous for sinking two friendly vessels. 

“The HMAS Melbourne was built in Barrow. I worked on that,” Jackson remembers.

“And that centre I was telling you about, big Dennis?

“He knew I worked in the shipyard and he said, ‘Did you work on the steering gear, Phil?’

“Because it was the Melbourne, the ex-Majestic, that hit that destroyer, the Voyager!

“Hahahahaha.”

That was a different era. And Jackson says England isn’t as divided as it once was. But still, he says, only a small patch of Great Britain will really be behind their World Cup bid. 

“You’ve got the whole of your country behind you. We haven’t.

“But I’d like to have a yarn with the lads before they go out. Because I know – with living here, and with playing against the Aussies so much and everything – I know how they work. I know how they think.

“And they’re a lot different. The English are not as fired up. Because the Aussies have got a bit of dislike playing against the Poms. We haven’t got the dislike, you know?

“The Aussies are much more fired up to get into it than the Poms are.

“And I’d like to get in there and say, ‘These blokes are waiting for you lads. So you better get your fingers out or you’ll get your bloody head knocked off.’”