Weekend Interview: Ellery Hanley - how the greatest of all time reached the top of the world

Ellery Hanley (Picture: SWPix.com)
Ellery Hanley (Picture: SWPix.com)
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IF you were to call Ellery Hanley a ‘goat’ during the height of his playing days, it would have been bizarre, to say the least.

The image is too much like that of a donkey and the former Great Britain rugby league captain was certainly far from that. He famously barely spoke to the press anyway back then, but you would definitely not get an interview with such comments.

Nowadays, though, it can have a different meaning entirely given G.O.A.T is an acronym for Greatest Of All Time.

Hanley – who won the Golden Boot as the world’s best player in 1988 – has been called goat a lot lately. No one batted an eyelid.

After a Steve Prescott Man of Steel event in Leeds on Monday night, another erstwhile Lions captain Paul Sculthorpe took to Twitter to label Hanley just that.

Ex-Great Britain prop Barrie McDermott, who was present with Sculthorpe and other famous faces, did likewise.

Yorkshireman Hanley is hugely respected in the sport and, such is his glittering legacy, will always be high up in those discussions when it comes to who is best of all time.

Even as he approaches his 58th birthday, he still has an unexplainable aura around him.

Indeed, the former Wigan and Leeds loose forward, who shot to fame with Bradford Northern and scored one of the finest tries of all time at Headingley in 1983, looks like he could still run out this weekend such is his lithe and athletic frame.

He always prided himself on his fitness and professionalism, long before the sport went completely full-time, and his work ethic was one of the principal reasons behind his success, along with his brilliant skill and guile.

Ellery Hanley leads out Wiganto face Manly in the World Club Challenge game in 1987. The fireworks display would not be the only sparks to fly that evening. (Picture: Wigan archive)

Ellery Hanley leads out Wiganto face Manly in the World Club Challenge game in 1987. The fireworks display would not be the only sparks to fly that evening. (Picture: Wigan archive)

Hanley – one of the few British players to truly rule in the Australia club game as well – was in Leeds to unveil the members of a new panel, devised to help pick the Man of Steel.

He remains the only person to win that award, as the domestic game’s best player, on three occasions (1985, ‘87 and ‘89) and chairs the 21-man panel that includes his former Leeds and Lions team-mate Garry Schofield, Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah, Jonathan Davies, Malcolm Reilly and Sculthorpe.

Since a brief spell coaching Doncaster in 2008, Leeds-born Hanley has largely been away from the sport so, given his vast knowledge and experience, his return is heartily welcomed.

Fittingly, though, the World Club Challenge is also played tomorrow night when his old club Wigan host NRL champions Sydney Roosters looking to extend their record haul to five victories.

It was brutally and physically tough. What I liked about the idea then was I knew Wigan had played enough games to make sure we were match-fit.

Ellery Hanley

Hanley, of course, was the captain when they won their first following an epic game against Manly on a famous night at Central Park in 1987.

In front of a sold-out crowd of 36,895 (those there said there was nearer 50,000), the Cherry and Whites edged home 8-2 courtesy of David Stephenson’s four penalties in a hugely physical contest. Coached by Bob Fulton, the Australian champions were star-studded with the likes of Paul Vauntin, Cliff Lyons, Dale Shearer, Des Hasler and Michael O’Connor but later admitted they had under-estimated Wigan.

“It’s up there in the top three games I ever played,” Hanley recalled to The Yorkshire Post, a sign of just how iconic it was.

“It was just tremendous. The atmosphere was fantastic and to be part of such a spectacle game – even though there was no tries – was great.

“It was brutally and physically tough. What I liked about the idea then was I knew Wigan had played enough games to make sure we were match-fit.

“But Manly had as well so it always lent itself to being a good game and it was. It was a thriller. Breathtaking. End to end.Defences were on top and it was just magnificent to be a part of.”

The 2019 Steve Prescott Man of Steel and Dream Team Award Panel Launch at Dock 29 Leeds'Paul Sculthorpe, Eorl Crabtree, Robbie Paul,Barrie McDermott, Linzi Prescott, Denis Betts,Ellery Hanley, Johnny Whiteley,Keith Senior,Jason Robinson, Phil Clarke, Gary Schofield (Picture: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

The 2019 Steve Prescott Man of Steel and Dream Team Award Panel Launch at Dock 29 Leeds'Paul Sculthorpe, Eorl Crabtree, Robbie Paul,Barrie McDermott, Linzi Prescott, Denis Betts,Ellery Hanley, Johnny Whiteley,Keith Senior,Jason Robinson, Phil Clarke, Gary Schofield (Picture: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

Wigan will hope to replicate that tomorrow and Hanley, who scored 189 tries in 202 games for the club during their most successful period, expects another quality contest.

“The big thing with that Wigan team – and it rings true today – is they had a backbone of defence,” he added.

“Their willingness to tackle and defend like we did stayed within the side from that particular night all the way through to the present day.

“We know Wigan will come a cropper sometimes in certain games but, generally-speaking, Wigan base their winning format on defence. That’s what we brought into that game in 1987 more than anything else; that we were going to be defence-orientated. We knew we had the attack. But defensively they were good on the night as well.”

That night 32 years ago was the start of an illustrious period for Wigan; they reached Wembley the following season and, remarkably, went on to win eight successive Challenge Cup finals as well as claiming seven league titles before 1996.

With players of the ilk of Andy Gregory, Shaun Edwards, Steve Hampson, Phil Clarke et al it was a golden era.

“They were all tremendous,” recalled Hanley, who, moved to Leeds in 1991. “When you look back at that team it was formidable. Andy Greg’s there, Edwards and players like Joe Lydon, David Stephenson, Brian Case.

“Across the park it was fantastic. We all knew we could trust each other. That was the thing; we’d go on the football park with a winning mentality.

“Obviously there was always nerves there and no one really knows what will happen at the end of 80 minutes.

“But we always had a good belief that everyone understood their defensive duties, the organisation in defence was spot-on and the front-on first-up tackle was solid and the contact was good, so we knew that we’d given ourselves a great chance.”

His earlier answer, though, begs the question, which were his other two all-time top games?

“It’s very difficult,” he conceded. “But there was a particular game I played in Townsville for Great Britain in a touring midweek game.

“Coming off the field I got a standing ovation. That particular game, for me, was absolutely phenomenal. It was fabulous.

“I’ll always remember it and it still gives me goose pimples knowing that the whole (Australian) crowd stood up like that. I’d come off early as I was playing at the weekend, too.

“I’ll never forget that. Obviously we had all the Australian Test matches that we played. We didn’t win many but the ones we did we did really well in. Those are great memories.”

There was the famous ‘88 win in Sydney, the victory at Wembley two years later and, then, as coach, when 12-man Britain repeated the feat in 1994.

Granted, a World Cup glory eluded him as it has for so many greats since 1972. But, even now, more than 20 years after his last game, the peerless Hanley continues to inspire. No matter what you call him.