Matt Diskin played 264 games for Leeds Rhinos before moving to the Bradford Bulls in a celebrated career that included winning the Harry Sunderland Trophy for man of the match in the Grand Final. The Dewsbury-born hooker also represented Great Britain. Current coach of Oldham RLFC, he was coaching Batley Bulldogs last August, during their fateful trip to Toulouse, when debut hooker Archie Bruce died in the club hotel. Here he tells the story of that fateful trip, of his own battles before and since with depression – and how he feels the Rugby Football League has deliberately abandoned him.
‘PLAYING Rugby League Football, it’s the greatest game of all’ – those are lyrics penned by Australian Danny McMaster (and repeatedly renditioned by an old coach of mine when he partakes in a few ales).
The sentiments won’t be disputed by anyone involved in our beautiful game.
Unfortunately rugby league in the UK has missed numerous opportunities over the last 30 years to capitalise on the heroes it catapulted into the national limelight in the 90s.
More specifically I believe the governing body, the RFL, are guilty of mismanaging ‘our’ game for their own interests, rather than serving the people that make the sport the ‘greatest game of all’ – the players, coaches and most of all the fans.
The governing body has inflicted damage at various levels over the years, for which they are never held accountable. For our game to progress I feel the institution itself needs entirely dismantling; only then can it move forward.
Please don’t interpret my view as being that of someone ‘biting the hand that feeds you’. I love our sport. It has taken me from a council estate in Dewsbury and allowed me to travel the world, opening doors I could never have knocked on, without rugby league. I will always be indebted to many people I’ve met through this great sport.
But it has also given me first-hand experience of the RFL’s lack of accountability. When you experience two administrations with the Bradford Bulls you soon learn who and what people really care about – and it’s not the future of rugby league.
My move to the Bulls led to a very tough time with regard to my mental health and since 2010 we (my family and I) have suffered with my continuing battles with depression. It came once again to the fore over the last six months, following the tragic death of Archie Bruce.
I must give credit to the RFL for their support of charities like State of Mind, the RL Benevolent Fund and Sporting Chance. The latter and its chairman Colin Bland brought me back from the brink when I was at my lowest and I will always be indebted.
But behind the funding and all the noise about how seriously the RFL takes mental health, my recent experience suggests otherwise. When we knocked on the door for help, they kicked us off the doorstep without hesitation or sympathy. At that point I felt I had to speak out.
THE visit to Toulouse in August last year was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever experienced and the rawness is still overwhelming.
On the morning of August 18 the Batley Bulldogs group gathered in the reception area of our hotel ready to depart for home. Five minutes passed and we had a couple of no-shows.
I sent my assistant Lee St Hilaire to round them up, but the situation swiftly turned to panic. Lee returned clearly shocked and asked me and our physio Alison Briggs to go with him.
We found Archie fully clothed and still firmly grasping his wallet. Before Ally could confirm he had no pulse I knew he wasn’t coming home.
Ally began CPR, while I sprinted to reception to get their defibrillator and then their receptionist to help interpret the French instructions. Archie’s teammate Michael Ward took over when Ally started to tire, until the paramedics arrived and asked us to leave the room, at which point reality hit. Ally broke down in tears whilst I held her. She will always be a hero to me.
Thirty minutes later the French medics ended the longest hour of our lives, confirming Archie’s death. You can imagine the emotions involved, but I needed to somehow compose myself to inform his teammates. Their faces, and that of Archie’s that morning, will always haunt me.
I also needed to try and speak with Archie’s family before they heard the news second-hand. I must have called his dad Steve a dozen times but to no avail. I eventually rang my uncle and asked him to drive to their house.
When he rang me back from the front door of the Bruce’s home he passed his phone to Steve. To this day I’m not sure how I actually told him or what I said other than that I felt I’d let him down. His son was my responsibility and I wasn’t bringing him home.
I returned to the room where Michael Ward was sat with Archie. We didn’t want him to be on his own. After a while Michael left and I was alone with him. I spoke to him as a proud friend who was sorry he’d let him down.
Later, we had to find a way to get people home. Bulldogs chairman Kevin Nicholas was great in keeping everyone calm and speaking with the RFL and the Benevolent Fund.
Flights were rearranged and following the police investigators’ approval everyone went home except those in charge and the people who saw Archie last.
You can imagine how we all needed to leave that hotel. Cedric Garcia from the Toulouse club had us moved and Cedric was invaluable to us and the Bruce family over the coming days.
Everyone went home the next day except me. I stayed to be there for Archie’s mum and dad, Steve and Beverley Bruce, but I was lost, both physically and emotionally. How do you deal with something like this?
I decided to edit the previous evening’s game, highlighting Archie’s contribution; very positive for a young kid making his debut. But watching the game just made the whole situation even more unreal.
Waiting for Steve and Beverley at the airport led to my first-ever anxiety attack. Nothing I could say or do could relate to their pain and trauma. They were clearly drained, but other than a hug, there was nothing else I could say or do that would help that.
Cedric was driving for us and I answered the Bruces’ questions as honestly as I could. I hope that in some way that helped. Later we tried to eat but instead shared a couple of beers. I opened the laptop to view the match highlights before it became too much for Beverley who returned to her room with Archie’s playing shirt. Me and Steve shared stories, memories and took pride in the progress his son had made in nine months with our development programme.
I’m not sure much if any comfort can be taken in such circumstances, but having just made his professional debut and with things going so well in his personal life, I’m sure Archie was on top of the world when he fell asleep for the last time.
The process of writing this has been cathartic in a sense, as it is the first time I have spoken in depth about the events to anyone. I’m not looking for sympathy. These are my issues and emotions that I personally need to deal with and for six months I’ve bottled them up, whilst trying to support everyone involved. This all changed when the 2020 Championship fixtures were released.
I SAW my new club Oldham would be visiting Toulouse in Round Two, less than six months from the day we lost Archie.
It sparked a domino effect of emotions that led to me isolating myself from the people I love, looking to alcohol to solve my problems and generally pushing away anyone that cares for me.
But all of that was compounded when the itinerary for the Toulouse trip was published – we would be staying in the same hotel where Archie died. That took me lower than ever, and I relayed my
concerns to my chairman Chris Hamilton who in turn asked the RFL to put us in a different hotel.
Cedric and Toulouse were in a tough position in regards to the cost so we asked the RFL for help. After weeks of back and forth, the same RFL that is so public on mental health issues, said no.
Ralph Rimmer personally said they have numerous such requests and they couldn’t be seen to differentiate my request from those.
In other words, what we went through wasn’t unique and therefore didn’t deserve their support. They would put me in another hotel, but not the team. And a coach simply can’t do that.
After Ralph made that refusal I broke down, because the fear of returning to that hotel was overwhelming. There is no way I could visit that place and I thought I would have to quit my coaching role as a result.
I think the RFL and Ralph Rimmer would have helped if they thought they could reap positive PR headlines from the situation, but as this was a private request they simply declined.
I believe they intentionally put a coach in such a traumatic situation as to cause emotional and mental damage.
Despite the RFL’s governance, there is a reason to still say we’re ‘the greatest game of all’ – the amazing people within it. You only have to look at the support Rob Burrow and Mose Masoe have received following recent events to realise how wonderful, how generous and how close our sport can be.
The friendships it creates between players, coaches and fans are what makes it special.
It’s one of these friendships I want to close with.
Kevin Nicholas, the chairman of Batley Bulldogs, my old boss but more importantly my friend, has humbled me with his support.
Having talked through the RFL’s refusal to help, Kevin took it upon himself to fight my corner but the RFL were steadfast in their decision.
What Kevin Nicholas did next, I will always be indebted for.
With the RFL uninterested, the Batley Bulldogs have funded the extra cost for Oldham to be moved to a different hotel.
I won’t have to relive the horrors of that morning.
When I have doubts about our beautiful game, the friendships it creates reaffirms those Aussie lyrics: ‘Playing Rugby League Football, it’s the greatest game of all’.”
A SPOKESMAN for the RFL said: “Clubs liaise with Toulouse to directly arrange travel and accommodation.
“Following dialogue, we ensured that there was alternative accommodation offered for the whole Oldham squad.
“We appreciate it is a sensitive situation for all involved with Batley last season.
“The need for confidentiality means that much of the work we do relating to mental health, working alongside RL Cares, the RL Benevolent Fund, and Sporting Chance, must remain private.”