Keith Mason: Footy, film and fighting

From troubled teen to rugby league star, Mason has broken the mould on and off the field. He headed to the NRL at just 19 years of age, at a time when Englishmen were rare in the Australian competition, and then returned to make a name for himself in Super League. After the highs and lows of a 14-year sporting career, with no shortage of controversies, Mason has set his sights on a new life cracking Hollywood. This is his story.

Love Rugby League meets Mason in a small café, across the road from the Dewsbury town hall. A West Yorkshire lad born and bred, the one-time front-rower has remained connected to his roots. He may have retired three years ago but Mason looks as fit as in his playing days, and as if he could don a pair of a boots and pull off a series of damaging hit-ups tomorrow.

Mason’s life has been a whirlwind since he called on time on his rugby league days three years ago at Castleford, at the age of 32. A chance nightclub meeting with actor Mickey Rourke has led to a burgeoning acting career and time working as a model. It’s a far cry from his hard upbringing by a single mother. Mason’s journey starts with rugby league.

“Even as a young boy, I was a juvenile delinquent, I was in a lot of trouble,” the 34-year old reflects.

“I didn’t have a dad, I didn’t have discipline. I went to court 40 times. When my friend went to jail, I was 15 and I trained every day. Rugby league has helped me absolutely. I’ve been very lucky I’ve travelled the world, I’ve played for Wales, I played over 200 games in Super League.”

Mason grew up playing the game, often with older kids, and had a natural affinity with the sport.

“We used to play on the concrete. Getting bashed about toughened me up. I was in a lot of fights as a kid as well.”

Rugby league gave him a way out and at 18 he made his Super League debut for Wakefield.

“As an 18-year old front-rower forward against big men… I want to better than my opposing number. I want to destroy them. It’s like going to war, it’s the tribal instincts.”

After just two seasons, and a handful international appearances of Wales, the prop was on his way to the NRL.

“It was a dream come true. Where I’d come from three, four years before. I’d worked my arse off to get there. I was the fittest player at Wakefield at 17. I had a good engine.”

Mason signed with Melbourne Storm and spent just over season with the Victorian club. This was the time when Billy Slater and Cameron Smith were just coming through the Storm ranks, and Craig Bellamy was soon to take over the reins as coach. In the years that followed Melbourne would dominate the NRL with the likes of Slater, Smith, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis and Israel Folau.

The front-rower was in the Australian competition when no British players, apart from Adrian Morley, took the gamble to go down under. Mason enjoyed his time in the NRL and can see now why so many UK players, from the Burgess brothers to Josh Hodgson and Elliot Whitehead, are regularly heading to the competition.

“The game’s not that different, but in Australia they’ve got better facilities and better weather,” he says.

“It’s good for them [English players]. Not just to play rugby but for life. It’s a better competition overall.”

Mason returned to Super League in 2003 and would spend three very successful years with St Helens. In that time Saints won the Challenge Cup in 2004 and the League Leader’s Shield in 2005.

“St Helens in 2003/2004 was probably the best rugby league side I played with,” the forward says.

“You don’t get teams with that much talent now. It was scary.”

Mason moved on to Huddersfield in 2006, after a short stint at Cas, and spent seven years with the Giants. It all came unstuck at the end of the 2012 season when he was sacked after an image of Scott Moore’s backside appeared on his Twitter feed. But Mason challenged the decision and took Huddersfield to court, eventually winning the case of unlawful dismissal and was awarded £167,000 in damages.

The front-rower went on to play 16 games for the Tigers in 2013 before eventually retiring. His heart wasn’t in it anymore and he had fell out of love with the game.

“I probably could have done a few more years. People ask me why I aren’t I still playing? But the court case… I was forgotten about, I was done. They blacklisted my name. At the end of the day in life, it’s not how hard you hit but how hard you get hit and bounce back. And then I realized that.”

Mason admits that he struggled with retirement.

“I was a little bit lost. Joe Calzaghe helped me through. A lot of rugby league players go through depression.”

Mason struck up a friendship with Academy Award nominee Rourke, in a London bar after the 2009 Challenge Cup final, and that led to him taking a part in Rourke’s 2013 film Skin Traffik. Since then he has had roles in the BBC series Peaky Blinders and in the upcoming Guy Ritchie movie Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur. Mason is focused on expanding his acting work and he has also done time as model and worked in the US.

“That was eye-opening, living in Brooklyn,” he reflects.

“With modeling you have to learn how to pout! And you have to be in shape. [But] it’s just a blessing really. Rugby league players, they seem to get forgotten about [once they retire]. Unless you’re a pundit or a coach.”

Mason is serious about becoming a full-time actor and fully crossing the bridge from professional sport into film and television. It is one few if any have travelled in rugby league circles, former Australian players Ian Roberts and Matt Nable two very rare examples.

“I did my first film without an audition, without any acting experience. You learn stuff about yourself that you don’t know. Acting is very cutthroat but I’ve come from a tough background.

“I believe in myself and I know have a lot to offer. I’m not doing it for the fame. If I can follow it through, I think it could be good for rugby league. Rugby league has been part of my make-up.”

Sadly Mason no longer has any direct involvement in the game anymore, apart from through his son Lukas who is a junior with Clock Face Miners.

“I don’t really watch any of it. I look at the results but when I watch it, it makes me feel… like I should be out there so I try to distance myself from it. I could still play but… I played 14 seasons, but with the opportunity I got with other things, it’s still a passion for me.”

Mason has seen the game change a lot since he broke through with Wakefield in 2000, with new rules such as the banning of the shoulder charge.

“Rugby league is getting too political; the posh knobs need to keep their noses out. You get paid for the job to do. It’s like going to war. When you play rugby league you go 100 miles an hour or you get hurt. You don’t think about getting hurt.”

The former St Helens and Huddersfield star has no regrets about his time in rugby league and how it finished up.

“I’m happy with my rugby league career because I never dreamed of doing any of that. I debuted at 19 in the NRL; at 21 I was a Challenge Cup winner. I made a lot of good friends through the game. I’d like to think I would be remembered as a competitor, someone who didn’t take a backward step.”

Now he is determined to make his mark as a thespian, building a new career in the silver screen. Mason has had his fair share of knocks, of ups and downs, but this is one forward who won’t be giving in until he’s cracked it.

“Some players retire and put their feet up, for me I’m starting all over again. It’s a new chapter in my life and I’m so happy I got that. But I got that through the adversity I went through. When I won the case it gave me that hunger, that drive again. I have been through a lot but I’ve bounced back. Hopefully I can have a long career and make my children proud.”