BIG INTERVIEW: PNE fan Ryan Brierley having the best of both worlds in rugby league
If you sit on the Alan Kelly Town End for Preston North End matches, among you on a regular basis has been Ryan Brierley who has cut out a very decent career for himself in rugby league.
The lifelong PNE fan has played Super League rugby for Huddersfield Giants and made more than a century of appearances for Leigh Centurions.
Brierley, 27, is now in his second season with Toronto Wolfpack, the Canadian side who play in the English Championship.
For the next few months, that means a split shift for Brierley and his team-mates in terms of playing over in Canada and on these shores.
They will play a couple of games at a time in Toronto and then fly back to England for two games.
Toronto have been based here for the first few weeks of the rugby league season while the weather improves back in Canada.
Their ‘home’ training base is at Hopwood Hall in Rochdale – slap-bang in rugby league heartland.
Brierley, born in Sharoe Green Hospital, lived in Preston until he was four. While home since then has been in the Bolton area, he has never forgot his Preston roots, nor his love for PNE.
At school he played and excelled at rugby league but at the age of 15 had a trial at North End, briefly swapping the oval ball for the round ball game.
While he didn’t quite catch the eye in his time at North End, things worked out for Brierley in rugby league rather better. Brierley said: “Although I moved away from Preston when I was quite young, I’ve always spent a lot of time back here.
“I was very close to my nan who sadly passed away a couple of years ago, while I was back to watch North End a lot.
“I began to play rugby league as a kid, playing for an amateur club round the corner from where I lived.
“From there I went to Westhoughton Lions and played for the town team.
“As far as playing football was concerned, I only played for the school team.
“When I was 15 though, I got a phone call asking me to go for a trial with Preston.
“I thought it was a wind-up but then I got another call from Nick Harrison who wanted me to go and train with the YTS lads.
“School let me have the day off and I turned up at Springfields to have a trial.
“When I got there I saw Simon Whaley and David Nugent – Nuge was my hero. The warm-up that day was a run from Springfields up to the sports arena where we trained.
“After that trial, I trained on a Tuesday and Thursday night at the academy for six weeks or so.
“I was out of my depth to be fair and eventually I got a call to say they wouldn’t be taking me on.
“The other young lads around that time were Sam Hart, Jamie Proctor, George Miller.”
Brierley went back to play rugby with Hindley and the sport soon got serious for him as a career.
In fairness, he has not looked back since.
“At Hindley, a lot of my team-mates got signed up for Wigan and I didn’t – that was devastating,” said Brierley.
“I played at college and then got a trial with Castleford Tigers.
“From there I went to play for Leigh Centurions in the Championship.
“I had good times with Leigh, played a lot of games and enjoyed myself.
“That earned me the Super League contract with Huddersfield but after a year there a new coach came in and didn’t play me.
“It was then that I got the offer from Toronto and it was a chance for a whole new life experience.”
Last year, Wolfpack topped the Championship and battled their way through to the ‘Million Pound game’.
Victory would have meant a place in Super League but London Broncos beat them in a low-scoring game in Toronto.
So instead of Wigan and St Helens, it is Featherstone, Barrow and the likes again this season.
Brierley said: “Last year we played all the games over here until May while they relaid our pitch in Toronto.
“Then we did a 12-week stint in Canada which is a long time to be away.
“We did brilliantly to get to the Million Pound Game, we were the best team by a country mile.
“On the way we beat two Super League teams but then came up short in the final against London.
“It was a kick in the teeth but fair play to London
“This season we have played the first eight or nine games here and then we’re off to Canada.
“It will be roughly two weeks there, two weeks here until October.
“We play Featherstone on Monday and then fly to Canada on Tuesday.
“At home games over in Canada there are crowds of 9,000 to 10,000.
“The fans are absolutely bonkers and brilliant, they turn up, drink beer and just enjoy watching it!
“Rugby league is a new sport over there so the fans aren’t quite up with the rules.
“So you don’t hear any booing of the referee or if we make a mistake.
“I’m a half-back in the team, an organiser if you like, trying to score as many points as I can.
“The long-term plan is to get more teams in Canada and North America, but that’s for the future.”