I hope you’ll forgive this indulgent post about my grandson’s burgeoning rugby league career but I rather liked my reference to both rugby league and race walking being contact sports.
Back in 1947, I was born into the working class world of Rugby League – the Lancashire side of the Pennines. During my teenage years, I lived in a classic two-up, two-down terraced house, only a drop kick away from Hilton Park, the rickety home of Leigh RLFC. My dad, like many a miner, tried his hand, playing a couple of games as a hooker for the ‘A’ team. And, in 1957, I played for Newton West Park against the Twelve Apostles in the Leigh Primary Schools final on the hallowed ground of the town’s professional team. The muddy pitch was so big it was a wonder either team got near the opposition’s try line. It ended 3 points all in a dour draw. I ended up with a bloody nose, which was sorted by my father, running on with the ‘magic sponge’ and the instruction, ‘ger on wi’it’.
Like many a young lad, I dreamed of playing for Leigh. My hero was the rampaging Mick Martyn. However, I was neither tough nor quick enough to emulate his exploits. Never mind that I went to grammar school, where class pretension meant rugby union was the name of a game, where writhing about on the ground was a necessity. kicking obligatory and passing almost unheard of. I became a race walker, where the only necessary contact was with the ground rather than with hurtling bodies – in retrospect far safer. Indeed it used to be a huge compliment to be told post-race by knowledgeable spectators and eagle-eyed judges alike that your style meant you were ‘as safe as houses’.
In 1989 I found myself living in a ‘posher’ house close to the middle of Wigan, this time only a spiralling pass from Central Park, the atmospheric home of Wigan RLFC, Leigh’s fiercest rivals. My love for the game was reignited. To the dismay, I’m sure of loyal ‘Leythers’, with my wife being a ‘Wigginer’, I rationalised following both the Leigh and Wigan teams, the latter in its pomp. Ellery Hanley, Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell were amongst our heroes. It was an exhilarating period of dramatic matches, of incredible skills and courage, interspersed on our part with many a pint of Pendle Witch or Timothy Taylor’s Landlord consumed in characterful pubs across the North-West of England. During a couple of summers, I even found myself playing touch rugby for my local, the Tudor House, the oldest, slowest, but perhaps fittest in the team. On a couple of occasions my daughter’s soon-to-be husband, Bob Astley contributed to our efforts, startling us with his blistering pace.
Bob’s fast-twitch fibres were to be of more than passing importance. Having emigrated to Crete. Marilyn and I were not present at Logan’s birth so we can’t confirm the rumour that he was born with a rugby ball between his thighs. We can though vouch for the fact that from an early age he went to bed with ball in hand. Indeed when we visited we found the living room had been transformed into a rugby pitch with two couches set at a right angle, comprising the grandstands. From thence on the ruffled carpet was host to passes, short and long, delicate grubber kicks and crunching tackles with Sonny, Logan’s younger brother in the heat of affairs. It’s a wonder the room remains roughly in one piece. Recently, Tubby, the family dog has found himself buffetted in the thick of things and, apprenticeship served, is able now to bark with authority, ‘Grr ’em onside’.
Outside of the Astley’s private training ground, Logan has made his way successfully through the competitive age groups of the local amateur rugby scene, often in the colours of the Wigan St Patrick’s club, earning consistent praise for his talents. Possessed of an exhilarating turn of speed, inherited from his dad and perchance a willingness to do the hard miles reminiscent of my athletic dedication he has stood out from the pack. He’s been on the books of Wigan Warriors [ don’t get me started on the daft, unnecessary brand name!] for the past few years and has made his first team debut. Where it goes from here is not anyone’s guess. He is gifted and committed, telling his mum, ‘how lucky he is to be paid for doing something he loves’ but the sport is cruel. Many an exciting prospect falls by the wayside, sometimes through career-threatening injury, sometimes by losing the plot. In his favour is a laid-back and unpretentious disposition. He’s certainly not too big for his own boots. For now, a proud grandad I’ll wallow in the moment described below and leave tomorrow for another day.
Astley leads the way as Warriors take title
WIGAN WARRIORS 40 WAKEFIELD TRINITY 12
Robin Park, Sunday, September 18, 2022
BEN O’KEEFE grabbed a hat-trick of tries and kicked four goals as Wigan claimed the second-string crown with a comfortable victory.
The winger completed his treble in the first half as the hosts led 18-6 at the break after bossing the bulk of the action.
The Warriors raced into a 14-0 lead with O’Keefe scoring twice on either side of a Kieran Tyrer try (O’Keefe improved that effort).
But Robbie Butterworth got Wakefield on the board with a try out of nothing, to which he added the two, as the visitors started to grow into the contest.
However, O’Keefe’s score on the hooter settled the home side, who were slowly allowing Trinity to get into the game.
A 51st-minute score from Josh Phillips, also converted by O’Keefe, gave Wakefield fresh hope as the deficit was cut to six points.
But a brace of tries from Sam Halsall and scores by Alex Sutton and Logan Astley, plus three O’Keefe goals, saw Wigan home.
It was not a great start from them as Umlya Hanley put the ball out on the full from the kick-off, and they then conceded a drop-out as Wakefield looked to gain an early advantage.
But Tyrer turned the tide as he found touch from the drop-out and it was Wigan now on the front foot.
They made that count as Astley took the ball left and found Halsall in space to send O’Keefe in at the corner.
Wigan extended their lead in the 15th minute when Tyrer collected a short ball, threw a dummy and went in under the posts unopposed.
Jack Bibby and Tyrer went close before Astley and Halsall combined once again to send O’Keefe in for his second try – and a 14-0 lead.
Great defence from Robbie Mann and Rob Butler prevented Wigan from scoring their fourth try.
The Yorkshire side took heart from that, went up the other end, and scored their first.
A towering kick was collected by Hanley, but he was met with a monster hit and spilled possession, leaving Butterworth to pick up and touch down. Wigan were reduced to twelve men with James McDonnell sent to the sin bin for a professional foul, and Wakefield started to cause problems.
Jay Haywood-Scriven came close to grabbing a second, but he was held just short.
Wigan managed to soak up a lot of pressure and O’Keefe crossed for his hat-trick just before the interval following another neat pass from Astley.
Wakefield enjoyed a lot of possession at the start of the second half as they camped on Wigan’s line, and they got their reward with Phillips forcing his way over from close range.
Wigan were now struggling to create chances as Wakefield were taking the game to them, but a poor pass was intercepted by Halsall, who raced 80 metres to help put Wigan twelve points in front with 23 minutes to go.
Halsall then put the game out of Wakefield’s reach with another long range effort. Junior Nsemba – who was brilliant all afternoon – combined with Astley and O’Keefe, with the latter turning it inside for the scorer to race away.
Wigan’s seventh try came from Sutton as he was on the end on another passing move started by Astley, who then capped a marvellous performance with a try of his own.
GAMESTAR: Ben O’Keefe, Sam Halsall and Junior Nsemba were brilliant, but scrum-half Logan Astley was the one pulling the strings.
GAMEBREAKER: Sam Halsall’s 57th-minute interception try pushed Wigan ahead by twelve points and they were never in danger of losing the game after that.