Lee Briers: The former party boy with a bit of devil who cannot wait to lock horns with Rhinos
Pain from 1997 will inspire Briers when he tries to lift the Challenge Cup at Wembley today. He talks to Dave Hadfield
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Saturday 25 August 2012
For a player who once looked set to flare and fade like a meteor, Lee Briers has proved to be astonishingly durable. Briers' career at his first club, St Helens, lasted all of six games. With his second, Warrington, he recently celebrated 400.
"I'm a day-to-day sort of person, so I don't think much about longevity," he says. "But I am proud of that 400. There won't be many more do that for one club."
The circumstances of his arrival at the Wolves make his career since all the more remarkable – and are especially poignant at this time of year.
Way back in 1997, Briers was a young reserve at Saints, his hometown club, called into the first team when their captain, Bobbie Goulding, was suspended. He played in every round of the Challenge Cup, including a man-of-the-match performance in the semi-final; come the final, Goulding was back and he was discarded – no Wembley suit, no consolation trip to the final, nothing.
"What happened in '97 still hurts," he admits. There was no going back, no reconciliation for him and his first club after that and Saints swiftly sold him to Warrington.
What they were getting was a half-back of obvious ability, who already had a reputation as something of a loose cannon. "To some people, I'll always be a party boy," he admits. "But that was a long time in the past."
It's not that Briers, now 34, hasn't had his moments at Warrington. He was, after all, not only joining a club which had won nothing for decades, but also one with the biggest reputation in the game for overdoing their social life off the field.
You might have thought he would be a bad match with Tony Smith, whose rigorous coaching regime at the Halliwell Jones has seen them become a trophy-winning side once more.
Smith doesn't want to turn Briers into a saint; he knows that the bit of devil in him is what makes him such a glorious player.
Smith had a neat way of putting it when asked to sum up Briers' career recently. "Lee has done a few things wrong," he said. "He's done a lot more things right."
Much of what Briers has done right relates to the Challenge Cup, which caused him such pain 15 years ago.
Like any player who misses out on the big occasion, he wondered whether he would get another chance. "But you wait for years then three come along at once, like buses," he says.
The first one to pull in at his stop was in 2009, when he helped the Wolves to victory over Huddersfield. The following year he went one better, winning the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in the thrashing of this year's opponents, Leeds.
He is the short-odds favourite to win it again this year, but he claims not to be motivated by individual awards.
"That sort of thing is for other people to decide," he says. "Its only importance to me is that it shows that you've played well in a good team performance."
Although he has the skill set of a gifted individualist, Briers has become a more and more effective team player as time has gone on.
No wonder he bridles a little at the implied criticism which has surfaced this year, to the effect that Warrington are an ageing team, playing on borrowed time. Someone has had the pocket calculator out and shown that the Wolves have, on average, the oldest side in Super League and the one with the most players over 30.
It is not a situation about which the club seems to be unduly concerned. In the run-up to Wembley, they negotiated new contracts with, among others, Briers, his fellow 34-year-old Brett Hodgson and Adrian Morley, who is a year older.
"As long as you're playing well enough, age is just a number," he says. "We're second in Super League and we're at Wembley, so we can't be doing too badly."
Briers is particularly in awe of the durability of Hodgson, who played for Huddersfield against Warrington in the 2009 final. The two both take more than their share of hard (and sometimes high and late) hits from opponents who know their importance to their team.
"He's 12 stone soaking wet," says Briers of his full-back. "He keeps on getting smashed and he just goes back for more. Brett's just a top-quality competitor."
Significantly, both Briers and Hodgson were wrapped in cotton wool and rested for last weekend's preliminary trip to the capital to play the London Broncos, who beat them by an astonishing 62-16.
Just like 15 years ago, he did not even go to the match and regards the result as a sublime irrelevance.
When it matters this afternoon, however, he is more likely than anyone to bend the occasion to his will.
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