Final line-break for Innes

By Peter Jessup

The midfield hard man of rugby and league recalls his playing highlights with PETER JESSUP.

Craig Innes is a rare breed - a rugby-cum-league professional just when it has become not only possible but downright fashionable.

But for Innes, the clock is winding down. He will be 32 in September. His wife Sara has just given birth to their first child Gabrielle, and Innes will pull the plug on the codes at the end of this season.

After a career that hit the highlights in rugby and league it is the simple things that matter now, like making his 40th and blazer game for Ponsonby's Ponies last weekend against Suburbs.

After one season with Marist he crossed town, made the Auckland and All Black sides, left for the other code, came back, and in all took 11 years to reach the club milestone.

"Eleven years, but it's been worth it. I'm still enjoying it, otherwise I wouldn't do it," said Innes after the announcement this week that he was no longer part of Auckland's NPC plans for the season.

It was a mutual decision he reached with coach Wayne Pivac. "I was retiring at the end of the season for sure anyway.

"The NPC is the right place to bring through talent, and there's plenty of talent there.

It was time for me to step aside and let them have a go, and good luck to them," the big centre said.

"I'm a realist. If you stick around for long enough, sooner or later that [getting dropped] is gonna happen to you."

Innes has been a reliable, hard-tackling, line-breaking, stand-and-deliver runner in whatever midfield he has played in - Auckland and the Blues, the All Blacks, the 1996 Manly league premiership winning side who also included Matthew Ridge, and stints with the Western Reds and Leeds.

He loves both games. "Union was in the blood, I grew up with it. I've been around it all my life and it's always been close to my heart."

Of league: "It was tough - a real grind in Australia, and I really liked that. No quarter asked or given, and I enjoyed that."

The bad side? "The continual rule changes and changes in interpretations in rugby are frustrating, for everyone. A scrappy, messy game is no fun for the players and no good to look at."

Comparisons? "You can't compare them. They're totally different games, totally different requirements. In league it's up to you how much you want to get involved, and I liked that."

Highlights? "The grand final win." He opened the scoring for Manly against St George when he pounced on a Geoff Toovey kick after five minutes.

Ridge played his usual controversial role with a run to set up a try when opponents believed he had been tackled. Manly won 20-8.

The side had 12 internationals - Innes, Ridge and Toovey, Des Hasler, Nik Kosef, David Gillespie, Jim Serdaris, Steve Menzies, Cliff Lyons, Mark Carroll, Daniel Gartner and Terry Hill.

"I'll remember the two years at Manly more than anything else," Innes said. "The team was on fire, it was a good place to be."

They won 18, lost 4, scored 549 points and had only 191 against them in competition play in 1996. They then beat the Roosters 16-14 and Cronulla 24-0 in the lead-up to the grand final.

Other highlights for Innes include his first test for the All Blacks, against Wales in 1989.

He joined the tour to Canada and the Britain as a 20-year-old and, with 20 games for Auckland, was behind John Schuster, Walter Little, Joe Stanley and Bernie McCahill in test midfield consideration.

But two tries in a tough game against Swansea and solid performances against Neath and Llanelli pushed him into the side for the game against Wales at Cardiff on November 4.

The 34-9 scoreline was then the highest total posted by a touring All Blacks side against a home nations team.

Innes played 30 games and 17 tests for the All Blacks in three seasons to 1991 before shifting codes.

He made two Challenge Cup league finals, although both were losses to Wigan.

He has had few lowlights - the knee tear that kept him out of much of his first season back in rugby in 1998 was the worst.

The return to the rugby fold came about because he and Sara had been conducting a long-distance love affair.

"I'd had seven years away and if we were going to get serious I had to come back. They were looking for midfielders at the Blues, the timing was good."

This year with the Blues "wasn't a lot of fun," he conceded. "But I've got no regrets."

He's going into sports management with the London-Sydney-Toulouse and now Auckland company Athlete Management International. He will handle player contracts, particularly in rugby.

"There are plenty of areas in the game that can be improved," said the dual professional, who plans to bring league thinking to the task. "They need to see the body as a tool."

He had seen plenty of players with problems involving gambling and drinking, and hopes to be able to help them overcome those difficulties.

"Professional rugby is still new and raw. I see plenty of opportunity there, bringing league skills through."

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