Unusually for someone raised in County Wicklow in Ireland, Brian Carney had an illustrious rugby league career as a winger with Hull, Wigan and NRL club Newcastle Knights before a spell with Irish union giants Munster. He represented Ireland in both league and union and starred for Great Britain, scoring eight tries in 14 Tests for the Lions. Erudite and eloquent, he is the face of rugby league and Gaelic games on Sky Sports.
You went to a Jesuit boarding school best known for being in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I don’t suppose rugby league was huge there.
"아니. The only rugby league I saw as a kid was Challenge Cup finals. We used to see them in the TV room at school. Bizarrely, what struck me most was the players having really high-cut shorts. We had pockets in shorts that were nearly down to our knees. Rugby league looked different. It was WWF meets rugby union. I fell out of love with rugby union – at school I was scrum-half who couldn’t pass, and at university a winger who couldn’t catch. In my final year I was invited down to Dublin Blues by Brian Corrigan. He thought I’d like rugby league. He was right. I loved it.”
What were you first impressions?
“I thought I could get involved as little or as much as I liked. You could have 20 or so involvements and felt you’d really contributed, which I didn’t always feel in union. League was much, much quicker than union then, without the rests. The rawness of the contact in tackles. 그것은 100 miles an hour, may the best man win. And it was relatively easy to understand, or so I thought.”
It’s not a simple game but what is going on out there that us mere spectators don’t realise?
“It’s like any subject or job: unless you’re heavily involved you miss all the preparations and subtleties. If the casual observer just sees a hard running game with spectacular tries, that’s not such a bad thing. 후 10 years at the top, it was still a mystery to me. I tried to study and learn from the best, but they still saw the game very differently to me. My picture was black and white, paint by numbers: Andrew Johns’ was the most beautiful masterpiece. The game made sense to him.”
As one of rugby league’s most public faces, you are also one of its most vocal critics. Does not being raised in the game make it easier to speak your mind?
“I came to the game at nearly 21 so have always considered myself an outsider. I played with guys whose dream since they were kids was to play for Wigan, Hull, Warrington or Newcastle Knights. That was fantastic. Being surrounded by people living their dream was wonderful to experience. If I am critical at any point it’s because I want to play my part in ensuring those dreams always exist.”
Once Were Lions, the documentary about the Lions’ tour of 2019, is being broadcast on BBC1 this weekend. As a former Lion yourself, how did you feel when you heard the team was returning?
“I thought it would be part of a strategy to take one of the few properties the sport has out of the closet it had been stuffed in for 12 연령, and re-introduce it to people who loved it, and introduce it to people who know nothing about this iconic brand. You could be 20 years of age, a season-ticket holder at St Helens, and not know about Great Britain because it had been in hiatus for so long. I thought they must have a plan to make that tour part of a wider effort to build the profile of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh teams. I was wrong.”
Once Wayne Bennett was given the Lions’ head coach job, did that suggest it was an England operation?
“Appointing Wayne Bennett because it made fiscal sense didn’t mean it had to be an England side. Even if it was filled with Englishmen because they’re the best players, it still wasn’t an English side: it was the Lions! Even if Wayne only played the game and said: ‘Yeah, I understand the heritage of the name. I’ll use predominantly English players, maybe work on some England combinations, but try to promote this brand.’ It was an utter failure and the coach played his part in that. And that’s not a critique of the performances on the field. It was the words that came out of his mouth. I don’t know what brief he was given but if it was ‘prepare England for the World Cup’ then the people who appointed him should be under the spotlight.”
The Lions are due to tour in 2023. Do you think we will see them again?
“Damaging as the tour was, I don’t think it was fatal. People would give it a second chance in the right circumstances: the Kangaroos coming over, playing a proper tour with club games and Tests against the Lions. But expecting the people who got it so wrong in 2019 to get it right next time is a folly. I haven’t heard from anybody where they think it went wrong from a branding perspective.”
The Lions lost all four Tests but there was very little in most of them.
“Taken in isolation they were not that bad a set of results. The pressure that’s on those players has been building up for decades. No British team has beaten New Zealand down there for 30 연령. It’s no disgrace going down to Tonga – they have some of the best players in the world. Papua New Guinea are probably the most passionate team and were going to get someone someday. It just happened to be Great Britain at the end of a calamitous tour. I believe the rotten international record, particularly against Australia, will turn at some stage. I don’t know if it will be because of someone’s expert coaching. We might just get lucky some day. Luck is often overlooked!”
You were man of the series in 2003 when the Lions led Australia in each game with five minutes to go only to lose the Ashes 3-0.
“The overwhelming feeling about 2003 is disappointment: that we weren’t good enough to win those games, and the best team won on each occasion. We didn’t have bad luck, the referee’s decisions didn’t go against us. We were nearly as good, but it would have taken more than was in us then to be better than them.”
There’s a key scene in Once Were Lions featuring winger Jermaine McGillvary’s reaction to missing a major chance against New Zealand. How did you cope when it goes wrong?
“I dropped more balls than almost anyone. I know the lonely feeling of standing there with my hands on my hips, looking at the ground. 그래서, when I see a player have an unfortunate incident, I can connect with them. When I see something that is genius, I just marvel at it. Not many wingers get taken off but I was against New Zealand in 2005, I was that bad! My father had flown over to London with his friends. After the game he was waiting by the team coach and I as good as brushed past him. I was ill-equipped to deal with failure, to park the dreadful performance and spend some time with my dad. I was embarrassed by my performance, but the treatment of my father was the lowest point.”
Did you dwell on failure more than relish success?
“I should have savoured the good times more. I can vividly remember my mistakes – even the most minute ones in training – more than the good moments. Kris Radlinski once said to me: ‘We get to enjoy five or six hours after a game, then you go to bed and wake up and start preparing for the next game.’ All my energies were put into trying to not make a mistake or have a negative result: go in there, do your job and try not to stuff up too much. A psychologist would have a field day with that.”
Do we underestimate the quality of Super League?
“I was speaking to an Australian coach in Super League. He said before he came he was watching videos of Super League games and players. He had a vision in his head of the competition and he said: ‘I was way out – they’re so much better and the competition is so much better than I’d given it credit for.’ The game over here has to be a little more comfortable in its own skin. What we have here is a wonderful sport with a deep, rich history, played in places that love the game, that are steeped in it, and long may that continue. Be proud of what we have, do more to celebrate it. Don’t wait 125 years to get a permanent museum to celebrate your history or find a home for your national team. The game needs a voice that makes everyone involved feel proud and enthused. We need PT Barnum!”
Are you worried about the World Cup? If England lose to Samoa in the opener they will probably play Tonga in the quarter-finals, a nightmare scenario.
"아니, I’m looking forward to it. I’m confident it will be a successful tournament whatever happens on the field. People say we need England to get to the final for it to be a success but that’s an affront to the organisers. They’re going to put on a great show and you’re going to enjoy it whoever the finalists will be. If England get there it will be a bonus. And they’ve as good a chance as any.”
Only England, 호주, Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea have beaten Ireland at a World Cup and there are 17 Ireland internationals playing in Super League. They could “do a Tonga”. Why isn’t the sport doing anything to help that?
“If you want international rugby league to succeed, you should want Ireland to be capable of beating England. It’s great for the game. Tonga emerging wasn’t part of some genius plan for the Pacific; it was a couple of high-profile players deciding to turn their backs on Australia and New Zealand to play for Tonga, and more followed. That’s in stark contrast to how we are developing. Let’s not have Joe Philbin, Ben Currie or James Bentley represent Ireland one year and then be pulled into the England set-up the next. That damages the international game.”
You railed against apparent “nationalism” in Shaun Wane’s selection policy, seemingly not wanting Australian accents in an England team that has to beat Australia to win the World Cup this year. Does it really matter?
“I don’t mind where you get your players from as long as they were eligible. Ian Herron and I were the only Irish-born players in the side in 2000 and it didn’t bother me. I grew up watching an Ireland side coached by Jack Charlton, beating England in Stuttgart in 1988, at the World Cup in 1990, and beating Italy in New York in 1994 – it didn’t matter where the accents were from to anyone in Ireland. Terry O’Connor couldn’t find Ireland on a map but he wanted to represent his heritage and that was good enough for me.”