Sibbo switch sees friends reunite

Team-mates at Salford  Richard Myler, Ian Sibbit, Malcolm Alker and Karl Fitzpatrick
Team-mates at Salford Richard Myler, Ian Sibbit, Malcolm Alker and Karl Fitzpatrick
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Former Rugby League star Ian Sibbit will have a little longer to wait before he can renew acquaintances – on the pitch at least – with one of his oldest friends.

The 32-year-old former Warrington Wolves and Salford City Reds second rower is the latest big name player to switch codes and try his hand at union by signing on the dotted line for Preston Grasshoppers.

He follows in the well-trodden path at Lightfoot Green Lane of a number of distinguished ex-RL players.

Former St Helens legend Sean Long is, perhaps, the highest-profile name to pull on the club’s striped jersey after he signed last season.

Long was inspired to switch codes by fellow ex-RL star and current Hoppers player-coach Karl Fitzpatrick, who just so happens to be one of Sibbit’s biggest mates!

The duo first played alongside each other as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 10-year-olds for Wigan schoolboys.

And years later, after both men had graduated to the professional ranks, they joined forces once again when Sibbit signed for Salford in 2005.

The pair were integral to the City Reds team which reached the Super League play-offs for the first time in the club’s history in 2006.

Sibbit’s decision to retire as a professional at the end of the last Super League season, after a two-year stint with Bradford Bulls, was seized upon by Fitzpatrick, who persuaded his good friend to sign for Hoppers.

Having never played union in his life before, Sibbit has spent the last few weeks acquainting himself with the differing demands of RU.

He has featured three times for the Hoppers’ second string and made a 10-minute cameo appearance for the first team at the end of last Saturday’s narrow 29-26 home win over Bromsgrove.

Unfortunately, an injury picked up playing for the reserves on Tuesday night means Sibbit looks like he will have to sit-out this weekend’s fixture away at Hertfordshire-based side Luctonians – and the chance to make his full debut for the club alongside Fitzpatrick.

Sibbit said: “I am really good mates with Karl.

“We’ve played together since being 10 years old as Wigan schoolboys. We came back together again when we both signed for Salford.

“He’s always said if I ever fancied giving it a go at union to let him know.

“So when I retired from playing professionally this season, he called me up and asked me if I fancied it.

“Fitzy’s just the same as what he was when we were 10 – small, angry...

“But joking aside – he’s brilliant.

“I love him to bits. He’s got a really infectious personality.

“He’s a great person to have around the place because he knows when to switch on and knuckle down when there’s hard work to be done, but he also knows when it’s time have a laugh and a giggle.”

After spending all of his life playing RL, Sibbit admits he has been pleasantly surprised by his initial experiences of switching codes, although he has found himself on the wrong side of some refereeing decisions

After incorporating some of his RL practices into his RU game, he has discoved they are not to the liking of union’s match officials.

“I never thought I would enjoy it this much,” Sibbit revealed. “From the training, the lads, everybody at the club has been fantastic – really welcoming.

“I’ve loved playing so far and I just can’t wait for the games to come around.

“I just want to keep learning and playing.

“I think I have adapted quite well to union in the games I’ve played so far.

“The biggest difference between the two codes which I have discovered straight away is over the last few years RL has gone wrestling daft.

“It’s all about wrestling your man to the floor and then turning him on to his back when you’re on the floor, whereas in union, as soon as you make a tackle, you have to get out of the way straight away.

“So I found that to be so different and in my first few games of union for Hoppers I gave a few penalties away. But I’m adapting and learning. More importantly, I am willing to learn.

“I’ve had a few training sessions with the lads and they’ve all been really helpful.

“In a way, playing games is the best way to learn and the lads have been talking me through it.”

Hoppers have made a bright start to the season and are currently handily placed – in fourth spot – for a promotion push from National League Two North after winning eight of their opening 10 league games.

Sibbit has been hugely impressed with the set-up at Lightfoot Green and he is eager to make his mark on the pitch for the remainder of this season.

“I can’t speak highly enough about the club,” he said.

“It’s very well run and there are a lot of good people at the club.

“There’s always a really good atmosphere around the clubhouse after training and games.

“I certainly want to play my part in helping Preston finish as high up the league as possible and hopefully clinch promotion.”

While it’s the first time Sibbit has played union, it’s not the first time he’s had the opportunity to switch codes.

In 2007, the season Salford were relegated from the Super League, he was sounded out about the possibility of joining Irish side Munster – but an injury curtailed that opportunity.

He said: “When Salford were certainties to go down, I was contacted by a couple of RL clubs about joining them.

“But one of my old coaches at Warrington Paul Derbyshire, who has sadly died now God rest his soul, was the strength and conditioning coach at Munster.

“He contacted me and asked me if I fancied going over there because they had a few injuries.

“He said I would do okay in union and I was really interested but they wanted me to fly out straight away but the problem was I had picked up a calf injury and I felt could not really commit to them because I might have been laid-up for a month or two.

“I always wonder what would have happened if I had not been injured.

“It’s one of the ‘what-ifs’ of not just my career but my life as well.

“It could have been a great opportunity to have a crack over there.”

Hailing from Wigan and a boyhood supporter of the Super League giants, Sibbit recovered from the heartache of being rejected by his home-town club at the age of 16 to forge a career at Warrington.

“I would have loved to have played for Wigan, especially being from the town,” he said.

“That would have been nice and when I was 16, it was something which I thought was going to happen.

“But believe it or not, I was too old because Wigan at the time were signing 11 and 12-year-olds.

“Fortunately, Warrington came in for me and I’ve no regrets. I was playing Super League at 18 and if I had been signed by Wigan, would I have got that opportunity?

“Warrington have played a massive part in my life.

“They gave me a chance and put a lot of faith in me.

“I owe the coach at the time Daryll Van de Velde an awful lot.

“He was a really tough taskmaster, but was a great fella off the field.

“Being an Aussie, he helped set me up when I went to play in Australia.”

Sibbit enjoyed a year playing for Melbourne Storm in 2002 and looking back, he admits it was probably the best period of his career.

“It was fun,” Sibbit added. “I was 21-years-old living on the other side of the world.

“I had to pinch myself really and it was great for my development as a player and a person.

“It helped me to grow up because I had been used to living at home with mum and dad, where I had my meals cooked for me.

“I had this magic clothes basket where I put my dirty clothes in and they came out washed, ironed, folded and put away.

“But all of a sudden I had to do things myself.

“My girlfriend Joanne, who is now my wife, came with me, but I had to grow up pretty quickly.

“Looking back, that year was the highlight of my career.

“I was playing in the best RL competition in the world week in, week out and I was getting to see new and exciting places.”

Despite wanting to extend his stay in Australia, a change of coach at Melbourne meant Sibbit, who has a son called Joey, was surplus to requirements and he rekindled his career with Warrington once more.

A further two years with the Wolves ensued before Salford signed him in 2005.

Sibbit would go on to play a key role in the club’s success the season after and he looks back at his time there with great fondness.

He said: “I really enjoyed it there. Salford is a great club.

“We always seemed to attract characters – we never seemed to sign run-of-the-mill players.

“There were so many great lads in that team.

“There were no egos, no superstars – although Fitzy might try and tell you he was one!

“There were people like Malcolm Alker and Paul Highton.

“The team just had a great work ethic and we all enjoyed each other’s company.

“I am very proud to be part of the team that got to the Super League play-offs for the first time in Salford’s history.”

An England A international, Sibbit is philosophical about the fact that he never earned full international honours.

Indeed, the imposing 6ft 3in star believes the international set-up in RL requires a radical overhaul.

“Not representing the full England team is not something that’s ever nagged at my mind,” he said.

“International RL is not as good a competition as it could be or what it should be.

“If you look at RU, they have got it right with the way they do things.

“Going back 20 or 30 years, you always used to get the Great Britain RL team touring Australia and they used to be special tours.

“I remember as a kid standing on the terraces at Central Park watching Wigan take on Australia.

“It was great, but for some reason RL has decided to go against that.

“We’ve got the home nation matches coming up but it hasn’t really caught the imagination.

“I think RL needs to get back to the GB tours and get them going again.

“So I’ve never really felt like I’ve missed out not playing for England.”

Sibbit decided to call time on his RL career after experiencing a traumatic period at Bradford Bulls this year.

The club entered into administration in June with debts of around £1.5m.

Happily, a consortium came in to buy the club and the Bulls future has been secured.

However, for Sibbit, considering all the uncertainty surrounding the club’s future, he felt it was a good time to hang up his boots.

One thing from the whole episode which has been good for Sibbit is that being one of the older pros, he worked closely with the players’ union – called 1eague3 – on behalf of his team-mates.

So impressed with his representational skills, 1eague3 have offered to give him some work in the future, although it’s purely voluntary.

He said: “I would not wish administration on anybody.

“The way we got treated, especially by the administrators, was horrendous.

“There was just no respect shown to the players.

“They would not come and talk to us or answer our questions – we were just kept in the dark.

“It really was a tough time, but we did get a lot of support from 1eague3.

“I had a lot of dealings with 1eague3 and one good thing to come out of it from my point of view was that they were impressed with the way I handled things and the way I came across.

“They want to work with me in the future and it’s a little bit of voluntary work for me, trying to help other players out.

“I wouldn’t want other players to go through what I had to go through.”

As well as his commitments with Hoppers, Sibbit, who lists Kiwi legend Stephen Kearney and Warrington stalwart Lee Briers has the best he’s ever had the pleasure of playing alongside, also has a new career.

He has just begun work as personal trainer for a Manchester-based company called M1Health.

He said: “It’s really 
enjoyable – I just need to start filling my diary up with more clients!”