The world of Rugby League said ‘see you soon’ to one its best players of the modern era last week when Warrington half back Lee Briers was forced to call an end to his playing career due to a neck injury.
The 35 year old had been a talisman for the club since signing from local rivals – and his hometown club – St Helens in 1997.
Over the course of the next 15 years, Briers went on to become a genuine club legend, having amassed a staggering 2,586 points in 425 appearances for the Wire. His retirement was announced last Friday after numerous scans and tests revealed that damaged sustained to his neck throughout the past season would put his health at serious risk if he continued to play.
Of his retirement announcement, Briers said: “I feel privileged to have played for so long. Unfortunately it has come to an end but it was going to one day and the doctor took that out of my hands. I’m sad but I’ve got good things to look forward to now with the coaching; my next chapter. It is something I have always wanted to focus on and now I have the opportunity to do that. I would have liked an extra year playing but I now hope to help find the next superstars of Warrington Wolves.”
Briers made his professional debut for his boyhood team St Helens after impressing in the academy set up and being given a first team chance when the current incumbent of the number 7 jersey Bobbie Goulding was missing through suspension.
The young Briers made a mockery of his size and lack of experience as her tore apart defences for the eight week period he spent as Goulding’s replacement. Often described by team mates and opponents as not looking able to tackle the proverbial hot dinner, Briers’ agility, vision and skill with ball in hand – and on boot – won him many admirers and plaudits as he lead Saints’ charge to the Challenge Cup final, having been nominated the man of the match in the Semi Final against Salford.
However, when Goulding returned from Suspension, Briers found himself out of the team for the Cup final. It was an expected move, as Goulding was one of the best scrum halves in the world at the time, but Briers was rocked when he wasn’t listed in the official squad to travel down to Wembley for the final, even as a non-playing member.
Hurt, Briers accepted the offer from Warrington to sign for a transfer fee of £65,000 – a sum that would seem the bargain of a lifetime in hindsight.
Saints’ loss was the Wires’ gain as Briers soon established himself as a pivotal member of the team, being voted the supporters’ player of the year in his first season.
Over the next decade and half, Briers would experience more than most the highs and lows of being the stand out star of a rugby league team – on and off the field.
Many was the time he almost single-handedly carried a rank average Warrington team either side of the turn of the century, but perhaps his darkest hour came in 2001 when he lost his older brother Brian to cancer at the age of just 34.
Despite his tender years, Briers’ ability and standing within the team saw him made club captain in 2003, having been a key member of the squad that survived arguable the club’s darkest hour on the pitch the previous season when they narrowly avoided relegation with a late surge in form under new coach and former player Paul Cullen.
Cullen was a firm believer in Briers’ quality and, miffed at his lack of representative honours, declared that ‘if Lee Briers can’t get picked to play behind an international pack, I will put an international pack in front of Lee Briers’. It was perhaps the signing of a centre, however, that managed to galvanise Briers further and his combination with Martin Gleeson on Warrington’s right edge of attack in 2005 and 2006 was nothing short of world class. The fact that the right edge of Briers, Westwood and Gleeson never lined up together in the red, white and blue of Great Britain will always remain one a bone of contention in certain rugby league circles.
Briers’ solitary GB cap came in 2001 against France, an occasion he marked in typical style; by crossing for a try and slotting over a goal. He would find himself called up to the 2006 train-on squad ahead of the Tri Nations series in Australia and New Zealand, only to be cut from the squad before the tournament started. In his appearance against a Newcastle select XII, Briers was named man of the match and his attitude and application to training on that tour won him further praise from his fellow professionals, including Brian Carney who described him as the ‘consummate professional’ during the time Briers spent with the squad.
While he never received the opportunity to display his undoubted talents in the Test football arena, Briers’ international career with Wales included memorable highlights that made a mockery of the amount of times he was overlooked for Lions’ selection. In the World Cup 2000 and the Four Nations tournament of 2011, Briers ran the show for the Principality as they gave Australia a real scare in the first half on both occasions. The Kangaroos’ obvious class shone through against the largely part-timers of Wales, but Briers’ performances against the side that went on to win both tournaments displayed every facet of his game; unpredictability, vision, ball handling and kicking skills and a general threat every time he took on the defensive line.
It is those talents that earned him praise from many of the Australian test squad, but perhaps the highest praise bestowed upon Briers came from Australian Immortal Andrew Johns. Johns spent a brief spell on loan at Warrington in 2005 and having played alongside Briers in the halves and seen him up close in training, the genius known as ‘Joey’ was left in awe of the skill level of the mercurial Briers, who he described as being ‘World Class’. One pass in particular to Martin Gleeson in training caught the eye of the former Golden Boot winner, who would later describe it as a pass that ‘only one or two other players in the world could even see, let alone execute’. Johns remains a friend and a fan of Briers to this day – and he is a player widely regarded as one of the greatest to ever play the sport.
In recent years, Briers would taste some of the success his talent and determination warranted. Three Challenge Cup winners’ medals and a Lance Todd Trophy mean that he does not bow out of the game without some accolades, but his career sadly came to a close in Grand Final defeat to arch rivals Wigan. In perhaps one of the most striking images of his career – and recent Warrington history – a disconsolate Briers was captured applauding the club’s supporters as he exited the Old Trafford field after the loss to Wigan. The photo may one day rank alongside the image of fellow club legend Mike Gregory scoring against the Cherry and Whites at Wembley in 1990 in another heartbreaking defeat the Warriors – Briers, in stature, certainly ranks alongside Greg in terms of the affection felt for him from the club and the fans.
Immediately after his retirement was announced, online petitions circulated to persuade the club to rename the South Stand of the Halliwell Jones Stadium to the ‘Lee Briers Stand’, while some fans tweeted Warrington Borough Council to suggest a statue of Briers be erected in the town.
Few players have ever moved an entire generation of supporters to such feeling, but Lee Briers is one of them. From a personal point of view, he is the best player this writer has ever seen don the Primrose and Blue. I am too young to have seen the likes of Alex Murphy play live, though old enough to remember worshipping Jonathon Davies and Alan Langer, but for sheer loyalty to the club, dedication and an unrivalled passion to match his genius-level ability, Briers will always remain a personal favourite.
A fine exponent of the almost every skill required in rugby, some of Briers’ most iconic moments came in the form of his trusted right boot and his famous fondness for a drop goal. His drop goals against Hull KR and Leeds in the Challenge Cup and Playoffs stand out amongst his career 80 drop goals, while his ability to nudge a 40/20 kick is almost unparalleled in the sport.
Briers twice broke the record for most points scored by a Warrington player in a single game – his tally of 44 points (16 goals and three tries) against Swinton in 2011 beat his own previous record of 40 against York 11 years previously.
Briers, whose released his autobiography Off The Cuff this year, will begin a new chapter of his life as part of the Warrington coaching staff, having already began coaching with Wales, and hopefully develop more talented players in the future, but no matter who else fills the stand off position in the future, for those who saw him play, there will only ever be one Lee Briers.