Craig Kopczak Looks Back Over The Career Which Resulted in His Joining Salford
They say that you have to learn how to lose before you can learn how to win, and if that is the case, then our stalwart of a prop, Craig Kopczak, certainly got plenty of experience of the former in his early playing days. Living in Eccleshill, on the outskirts of Bradford, Craig’s father played as a prop with Dudley Hill ARLFC, and once Craig reached the age of five he was taken along to the club.
With the majority of the youngsters there somewhat older than he was, he had to wait until the age of six before he was allowed to play in the team, despite sundry pleas to be allowed to do so over the ensuing twelve months. His joy at eventually being old enough, was possibly tempered, somewhat, by the fact that he was on the losing side – something he found himself getting used to.
“We did not win a game all season,” he wryly grimaces. “That was no good to me because I was on the promise of a pound for every time I scored a try.”
Despite these early difficulties, or maybe even because of them, the side stuck together and over a number of seasons just got better and better. Craig’s realisation as to how much they were improving came when there was renegotiation of his scoring-incentive rate.
“My pound a try was suddenly dropped to fifty pence because it was proving too expensive for my father,” he bemoans.
Craig’s size, which has been such an asset to us since he joined us here at the A J Bell, was the cause of his being moved up two age groups from his very first season, and this continued to be the case right up to the age of twelve, at which point he reverted to playing with lads of his own age.
“I was never overawed by playing against older lads, because my size meant that I was always able to hold my own against them, but then, by the age of twelve, there was a levelling off as other people started catching up, so that was when I rejoined my own age group,” he explains.
His physique in those days, however, was rather different from how we know him now, with his being much more slender, and this meant that he played in the second row, where his not inconsiderable pace could be exploited to the full, and so those fifty pences kept rolling in. Indeed, the team as a whole improved so much that reaching cup finals, and winning trophies, became something of a habit.
“It’s what you play sport for, and it definitely gives you an appetite for winning more and more silverware,” he maintains.
Unsurprisingly, in those circumstances, he was very happy at the club, and indeed had settled in really well from the very start, helped along by the fact that his father was a part of the place, and in the end he stayed there for a total of ten years, despite the fact that, geographically, they lived on the diametrically opposite side of the city.
It was as a result of his signing for Bradford Bulls, at the age of sixteen, that he eventually left Dudley Hill. He had already been involved with the Bulls through their Scholarship, from the age of fourteen, all of which had been good preparation for him for his graduation up the ranks, but, even so, joining their Academy was a big step up. He still remembers the extremely extensive induction they gave him, along with a number of his teammates from Dudley Hill, who had also been signed, alongside him.
Up until this point, Craig had always featured in the second row, but his U18s coach, Bernard Dwyer, had other ideas, and recognised his potential as a prop forward. Consequently, at the age of seventeen, Craig was put on the weights to build himself up, and at the same time adjust to the requirements, and demands, of the front row. His father was obviously of great assistance in this latter, having played there as an amateur throughout his own playing career.
He was in his second year with the U18s, when, much to his surprise he was called up to play for the U21s, which operated at that time, and indeed doubled up for both teams until he graduated to play with the older team only, with whom, at the age of only 19, he was fortunate enough to be in their team which won the Grand Final.
As might be expected, his Super League debut was not far behind, which turned out to be against the club for whom he was destined to sign later in his career, Huddersfield Giants. Starting off on the bench, he was introduced to the fray, for the last fifteen minutes, for what he still regards as the event of a lifetime.
“Walking out onto the pitch was a feeling which will never go away,” he insists. “Bradford was a huge club back then. The stadium was packed, that day, with everyone buzzing because we were winning, and there was I walking out to take up my place alongside Stuart Fielden, Joe Vagana, and Lesley Vainikolo, amongst a host of others.”
Craig Continues The Story Of His Career, In Part 2, As He Joins Huddersfield For Their Table Topping Season