WING KING

Meet Ikram Butt, the Featherstone flyer.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Viewed from south of Warrington, rugby league has always been a game played by enormous Northerners without finesse or front teeth. Remember how Eddie Waring used to patronise the sons of Wakefield whippet breeders and Castleford coal merchants for the benefit of television audiences in the Home Counties? Remember Richard Harris wallowing in the mud in Lindsay Anderson's gritty film This Sporting Life?

Now forget it. Those images have gone, along with most of the mines and mills that once provided a conveyor belt of would-be wallowers. Today, rugby league is a fast, exciting game played by athletes, more likely to train on pasta than pies.

Yet Ikram Butt, who plays for Featherstone Rovers against Leeds this afternoon in the Rugby League Challenge Cup semi-final, remains in a minority of one. He is the only Asian in the England squad and, indeed, in the entire league. (That's one more than in all four divisions of league football.)

Just as rugby league has suffered from being stereotyped, so Asian sportsmen have long been pigeon-holed as cricketers or hockey players. "We're always being told that we aren't tough enough for rugby, that our pain threshold is too low," says Ikram. "Well, mine isn't. And I know there are many more out there who are as tough as me." Broad-shouldered and bull-necked, Ikram talks in a broad Yorkshire accent.

He was born in Leeds 26 years ago and still lives in his parents' terraced house in Headingley. The back room is dominated by an imposing portrait of the man who influenced him more than any. His father, who died when Ikram was 12, boxed for the air force in Pakistan before moving to England and taking a job on the buses in Leeds.

"There were four of us brothers, and when each of us was ten he'd buy us a pair of boxing gloves. He used to wrestle with us as well and take us over the park to play football. If you came back from school complaining about cuts or bruises, he'd call you a softy. He was a hard man, a strict man, but affectionate as well. I thought he was brilliant."

By the time he was 19, Ikram was playing for Great Britain Colts against France. He came down to his hotel breakfast on the morning of the match to see his team-mates tucking into steak and chips. For a Moslem, that was out of the question. "I eat plenty of meat," he says, "but it has to be halal meat. When we're staying away from home, I order the pasta."

There are other culture clashes to be absorbed or negotiated. Ramadan, for instance, requires Moslems to fast between sunrise and sunset. Hardly the ideal preparation for 80 minutes of intense physical activity. "I tried it once during a reserve-team match. I felt light and dizzy and, in the end, I just had to drink some water."

Prayer times have also had to be adjusted. Ikram figures that his team- mates might not be too impressed to find him bowing towards Mecca just before a vital relegation match against Doncaster.

After home matches, Featherstone players are encouraged to go to the bar and mingle with the supporters. Ikram socialises happily, clutching his orange juice and lemonade. "I take plenty of stick for that," he grins. "They keep saying, `Go on, have a pint. Who's going to know?' But I don't know what beer tastes like and I don't intend to find out. I've never felt pulled. My beliefs and my faith are what keep me going."

Rare and welcome is the away game when he doesn't stand on his wing, near the touchline, and hear someone in the crowd calling him a "Paki bastard" or advising him to get back to his corner shop. "I can ignore it now," he says, "and rise above it."

Sally Cooper, a teacher and rugby league enthusiast who introduced the game to Hyrstmount Primary School in Batley, says he's a brilliant ambassador for his sport. All but five of the 350 pupils are Asian. "They love it when he comes to coach them. It's important that they see someone who has been a success."

Ikram himself enjoys the adulation. "It's flattering to be thought of as a role model. If I can help some of them to make the break into the game then so much the better."

In years to come, it's unlikely that another Asian rugby league player will be in a minority of one.

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