How Super League legend was almost persuaded to head London revolution

Drew Darbyshire
Paul Sculthorpe Great Britain PA

Photo: Barry Coombs/EMPICS Sport

Great Britain legend Paul Sculthorpe has told the sensational story when he came close to joining Richard Branson’s London Broncos just before his move to St Helens.

It is the autumn of 1997 and a baby-faced Sculthorpe had just finished his second season as a professional with Warrington and had already won international honours with Great Britain.

The Oldham-born forward, then regarded as one of Britain’s brightest stars, wanted to better his career at that point, so he requested a transfer from Warrington, who were struggling with financial difficulties.

Speaking on the Names From The Game podcast, Sculthorpe said: “It wasn’t about getting more money. Warrington were brilliant with me, I can’t speak highly enough of Peter Higham (then chairman).

“It was about progressing my career and I didn’t think it was going to happen at Warrington at the time because of the finances and selling our best players. That’s the reason the move came around but I’ve got nothing but good things to say about the club and I’ve still got a lot of friends there.

“We always had a good group of lads at Warrington and players who I’m still very good friends with now. I’ve nothing but great things to say about Warrington.

“It was a club that gave me an opportunity and did everything by me.

“I eventually moved but that was more about my ambition”

“Warrington was a very different club than it is now financially. The big one was when we sold Iestyn (Harris) to Leeds, he was probably the best player in Super League at the time, it that was pretty much a sign that Warrington didn’t have the funds and ambition.

“We knew financially we were struggling, there were certain times we were chasing for salaries. I had already broken into the Great Britain set up, I was playing with your (Andy) Farrell’s, (Bobbie) Goulding’s, (Chris) Joynt’s and players like that. They were playing in Challenge Cup finals and winning Championships and it’s all I wanted to do.”

Putting in a transfer request at Warrington

Sculthorpe was granted the transfer request by then Warrington chairman Peter Higham, who put the highest ever transfer price tag on international star Sculthorpe.

He said: “When I got back from the (Lions) tour I asked for a meeting with Peter Higham, so me and my dad went up to his house and just explained it.

“I had a great relationship with him so I was just open and honest. I said ‘with the way the club is at the moment, I don’t see us competing with the top teams or signing players to do that, would you grant me a transfer request?’

“He said, begrudgingly, that ‘I don’t want to lose you, you are one of our best young players, but with the finances that we’ll get with you will certainly help us at the moment’ so he granted me a transfer request.

“If he’d have said ‘no, you’re not going anywhere, you are under contract for the next four years’ then I would’ve given everything I had for Warrington, but thankfully Peter respected my opinions on it and I respected his, so he put me up for transfer.

“You didn’t know which way it was going to go because transfer fees are pretty much gone, with obviously the Bosman rule coming in, in all sports, where as soon as you are out of contract you are free to walk.

“Initially he put a million pound on me, which was I think double what the highest ever transfer fee that was paid. It was then just open to offers.”

Paul Sculthorpe on London Broncos approach

The first club that came in for Sculthorpe once he was placed on the transfer market were London Broncos, who had recently been taken over by billionaire businessman Richard Branson.

Speaking on the Names From The Game podcast with Dom Finnigan, Sculthorpe told the incredible tale of his day in the capital with Branson’s Broncos.

He recalled: “The first offer I got when it went public was the London Broncos, when Richard Branson bought the Broncos.

“It was a funny old time. I got a phone call from a guy called Brad Rosser, who was the chief executive of the Broncos at the time, and asked if I’d be willing to speak to them. Obviously I knew Branson had bought them and you looked at his wealth behind it and you were thinking ‘is this a club that can really compete?’.

“They talked about some of the Australian players they were looking to bring over, so I said yeah, definitely I’d speak to them; and see what the best decision would be for me and my family.”

Picked up in a helicopter

Sculthorpe said: “He asked me ‘what you doing tomorrow?’ and I had nothing on, so he said ‘I’ll send a car to your house’. I lived in Springhead in Oldham. He said ‘we’ll take you to Barton Airspace in Manchester and we’re going to send Richard’s helicopter up for you, fly you down to London and show you all the facilities at the Broncos’.

“They were playing at The Stoop at Harlequins at the time, ‘a house in Richmond where you’ll live’, which is a beautiful part of the world, and then it’s on to meet the man himself for dinner at his house.

“I remember getting off the phone and telling Lindsay (his wife). She thought of the Broncos as they were, a top eight side at best, she said ‘you aren’t going to Broncos?’ so I said ‘I doubt I’m going to the Broncos, but we are definitely going there tomorrow!’.

“We got picked up in the morning and got in a big red Virgin helicopter to Kempton Park racecourse where we was met by Tony Currie, an Australian who was their coach at the time. He took us around, showed us all the training facilities that they were looking at and then we went on to meet the main man.”

Meeting Richard Branson

He said: “We rocked up at this gaff, an eight million pound house at Holland Park. They said Richard is in a business meeting at the moment and he’ll come through when he’s done.

“We’re sat in this lounge area and there is like a U-shape of couches with a coffee table in front, so we’re just chatting away and the next thing Richard Branson walked in. He has just got a real aura about him and it just went deafly silent.

“He walked over to me, lifted my leg onto this coffee table and started shining my shoe with his shirt saying ‘so what have I got to do to get you?’ so I was thinking how good is this! A 19-year-old scally from Oldham with a billionaire polishing my shoes.”

Agreeing personal terms with London

Sculthorpe continued: “It was that impressive what the Broncos had to say and the players they were looking at that I actually agreed personal terms there and then.

“The personal teams were pretty much ‘we’ll give you whatever you want’ so I had agreed that there and then but what was still to be negotiated was the transfer fee at Warrington and what they were willing to pay.”

Becoming a Saint

Paul Sculthorpe St Helens PA
Photo: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport

The two-time Man of Steel’s move to the capital was squashed a few days later. Rugby league giants St Helens came in for Sculthorpe.

The rest, they say, is history.

Sculthorpe said: “However, a couple of days after, St Helens came in. My only reason for leaving Warrington was about winning trophies and playing with the best players and playing on the biggest stage.

“Saints had won back-to-back Challenge Cups in 96 and 97, and I think they had won their first Super League, so it was a no-brainer.

“I’d played with a lot of the players like Joynty, Ant Sullivan, Bobbie Goulding, Keiron Cunningham, so I knew the players I was joining. It was a no-brainer. Negotiations with Saints went pretty quickly and they were willing to pay Warrington.

“I wanted to play on the big stage. I look back now and the playing opportunities, the things you’ve won, the places you’ve played and the people you’ve met… What a decision (it turned out to be).”

Sculthorpe went on to play more than 250 games for Saints, winning three Super League Grand Finals, two World Club Challenges and four Challenge Cup finals.

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