“I regret it every day,” Ben Flower says simply of the terrible violence he unleashed at the start of rugby league’s Grand Final last October.
In the second minute of a clash between bitter local rivals, Wigan’s powerful prop spilled a pass near the opposition try line and was clipped by the forearm of St Helens’ Lance Hohaia. Flower reacted with clinical savagery.
His first punch knocked out Hohaia. The real damage was done in the next few shocking seconds. Crouching low over the stricken Hohaia, Flower landed an even more devastating second blow which rocked the head of his unconscious opponent. In front of 76,000 at Old Trafford and millions on television, Flower became the first man to be sent off in a Grand Final .
He received the longest initial ban – of six months – in rugby league history and was subjected to death threats and vitriol from around the world. It is understandable why Flower has remained publicly silent since then. He is also nervous, if willing to talk openly, in this first newspaper interview since the attack on Hohaia left him fearing a prison sentence and the end of his career.
Flower’s face creases with distress when asked to describe his feelings after seeing the incident for the first time. “It was at the disciplinary hearing,” he says. “I was very shocked. It was horrible. I hated myself for what I did. It’s brutal and it’s something you don’t do naturally. I’m not that person. I’ve not really watched it since then.”
The 27-year-old’s ban ends on Tuesday and Flower is expected to play his first match when Wigan travel to Warrington for another ferocious encounter. Flower hopes Thursday night’s Super League game will mark a new start in which he can redefine himself. Yet he knows that, first, he needs to address his distressing assault on Hohaia. Rugby league is a hard game, full of big hits and unyielding aggression. It is not, however, an excuse for attacking an opponent who has already been knocked cold. Flower does not peddle this as an excuse but the build-up was particularly intense.
“The rivalry with St Helens is there and playing them in the Grand Final was crazy. I knew it was going to be massive. So you were hyped-up to the max – and you’ve got to be to play in those games.”
Rugby league, just like union, needs to tread more carefully when whipping up its hulking players before major games. St Helens produced a couple of chilling hits even before Flower went to work – while Wigan’s uncompromising coach, Shaun Wane, prepares his teams by hammering home the need to impose themselves on the opposition.
“Shaun rides you hard and he trains you hard,” Flower admits. “And, yeah, he says the same thing before every game. He gears you up and unfortunately for me it was one step too far. But, walking out, the buzz was awesome. I couldn’t wait to play. Kick-off came and there was a big start. They put some shots in which was expected. It was history after that. I chased the ball and it bounced awkwardly. The ball has gone out of my hands and I’ve got hit from the side. Then I’ve hit Lance. I’ve knocked him out. And, yeah, then I’ve gone in again, not thinking, and hit him again – which is a terrible thing to do.” His face clouds again. Flower is either a supreme actor or, more obviously, consumed with remorse. “The first punch was instinct. I had chased the ball and potentially, I could have scored. After the frustration of dropping the ball, and getting hit from the side, it’s a natural reaction. But with the second punch there was no thought process. It happened so quick you couldn’t control it. The hype of thewhole week blew up in one overreaction from me. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was the perfect sort of place to hit someone. But I would never hit someone again like that.”
Flower’s speech is awkward but, watching the footage again, his meaning is clearer. Against a defenceless opponent his second punch carries a dark force. But it’s only “the perfect sort of place to hit someone” if you’ve lost your senses and are bent on destruction.
I believe Flower when he promises he would not repeat his mistake.
He must have known instantly he was in deep trouble? “I knew straight away. I was gone. I can’t describe walking off. It was awful. But it was the right decision. It was a blur really. Rads [Wigan’s general manager and former player Kris Radlinski] supported me but I just said, ‘I need to be on my own’. I broke down and cried. Every emotion went through my head as I’m repeating: ‘You idiot, what have you done? What have you done?’ At half time I got a taxi with my family and went home.”
One of the more tangled images from the day is of Flower’s father trying to console his shamed son in the Old Trafford car park. Flower looks down. “It’s what dads do. I let him down because he was devastated. It must have been real hard for him and Laura [his fiancé]. Laura supported me but there was not much she could say.”
Wane and Radlinski persuaded Flower to attend Wigan’s after-match function – and he conveys his embarrassment and desolation.
“That was tough, facing the boys, knowing I’d let them down so bad. They had lost. I was looking at them in the eyes because I knew I’d done wrong. I had to face them. Obviously they were all hurting but they didn’t show that in front of me and I respect them so much for that. I was expecting to be blanked but they’re my friends. They made sure I was all right.”
Flower also thought of Hohaia, the real victim that night.
“I got Lance’s number from one of the boys at St Helens. I wanted to message him and say, ‘I’m sorry for what I did. Hopefully you can forgive me and hopefully we can catch up one day’. I didn’t hear back but I didn’t expect to because what I did to him was terrible. I didn’t expect anything from him.”
On a quiet weekend, without any Premier League football, Flower was trending on Twitter – in a seething and malevolent way which stood in contrast to the dignified response of Hohaia and St Helens.
“It was pretty crazy,” Flower says. “I couldn’t believe the coverage it was getting all over the world. There were people messaging me from America who had probably never watched rugby league. It was all abusive tweets and messages. I’m going to get it because people are not going to forget about it quickly.”
Flower, in his darkest moments, feared jail.
“People were talking about the police getting involved which was really worrying me because you can go to prison for what I’d done. St Helens then put out a statement saying they supported me. It was real nice to know they had my back.”
One of the uplifting strands to a bleak story is the way in which St Helens and Wigan collaborated. The fierce rivals released a joint statement stressing concern for both players. St Helens even made a special plea to consider Flower’s vulnerability in the aftermath of his horrendous error. They seemed intent on protecting him.
“I know,” Flower says. “They definitely did that. They showed me a lot of support and I thank them. I also respect Lance because he said what happens on the field stays on the field. I’ve had loads of messages from St Helens people even though I took the hype off them winning. It was all about what had happened rather than them winning. I am responsible for that. So for them to message me their support is real nice.”
Could criminal charges have still been laid, and Flower jailed, despite the backing of St Helens and Hohaia?
“I’m not sure. I just knew this could be the end of my career and, obviously, I could go down for it. I felt that for a fair few days.”
Was he also concerned by the death threats ? “It was worrying because some of the things were so local – in Manchester. There were a fair few. I worry for my family not myself. Laura was worried that things might happen when she was out.”
He and Laura have a son, Daley, who turns two in June. “We’re from Wales but our little boy was born in Wigan,” Flower says. “He loves rugby. Whenever he wakes up the first thing he says is, ‘Bugby … bugby’.”
One day Flower will sit down and explain to Daley what he did to Hohaia. “I’m sure with social media and YouTube it will never be forgotten. So it’s something we’ll talk about when he gets older.
“It’s definitely changed me. It changes the way you look at life. What I do next will hopefully define me as a player. I need to come back with a positive role on and off the pitch.”
Flower’s face lights up as he talks about coaching teenage boys at Wigan.
“I’m loving it. I’m working with them in the wrestle pit … showing them what to do in contact …”
He no longer sounds as if he needs to monitor every word, and his enthusiasm is as rich when he relives switching from union to league, and moving to Wigan four years ago. Flower was a promising open-side flanker and played junior rugby alongside current Welsh union internationals such as Dan Lydiate, Jamie Roberts and Rhys Priestland. He loved George Smith, the Australian flanker, and believed that, like his hero, he could compensate for a lack of height. His coaches thought differently and converted him into a hooker – a position he did not enjoy.
Since moving to Wigan, and immersing himself in league, he has developed into one of the sport’s leading front-row forwards. Flower’s challenge now is to retain his aggressive edge in a combative sport – while ensuring that he never again loses control. “The first game will be tough but I need to play the same way as before. I’m not the biggest prop and I make up for it in other ways. I need to come back and play with aggression.
“I might get some bad press saying he’s made a high tackle and he’s a bit of a thug. But that’s not what I am. I’ll play as hard as I can and if I hurt someone it won’t be intentional.”
That attitude explains why Wane has stressed that Flower will play against Warrington. “Shaun is confident with me coming back into the team,” Flower says. “It’s going to be physical and Warrington are a great team. I will be nervous and worried about not making an impact … but I look forward to waking up the next morning feeling sore.”
Flower smiles before becoming more serious again. “Ninety per cent of my time at Wigan has been good. Ten per cent has been real bad. But what I do next will define me.
“Hopefully people can look at what I did in the Grand Final and say, ‘Yes, he did that … but look at what else he did in his career. He did a lot of good as well.”