Rugby League: `Beefcake' Rowley sparks Blue Sox revival

Halifax are one of the surprise teams of the season. Dave Hadfield reveals why
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IF HALIFAX continue their current run of form, their hooker, Paul Rowley, might one day be recognisable with his clothes on.

Rowley is known for two sets of attributes. One is the pace and flair that make him one of the brightest prospects in his position; the other is the physique that has made him the public torso, if not the public face, of the game.

"I've never had so much publicity in my life," says Rowley of the weeks that followed Super League's use of his flesh in its "Beef on the Bone" poster campaign to launch the new season.

Rowley's headless image was chosen, ahead of international-class beefcake like Alan Hunte and Robbie Paul, to be displayed, modesty preserved only by a rugby ball, across the length and breadth of the country.

"They took some shots of players who had been on the `Men of League' calendar and the girls in the office chose what they thought was the best pose," he says.

There could be no more sincere compliment, but there was a price for this sort of fame. The Sport phoned him at the gym six times in one day to ask for what can only be described as intimate details, before he succeeded in shaking them off.

It is no coincidence that he was tracked down at the gym, because few players have worked harder than Rowley to hone a body that not only looks good on hoardings but functions pretty damn well on the pitch.

Originally considered too small to pack down in the front row - even though a hooker's role now revolves almost entirely around his speed and invention at dummy half - he has turned himself into one of the strongest players for his size in the game.

He has also been one of the key factors in a start to the season that has surprised even Halifax's own supporters, with five wins in their first seven matches putting them fourth in the table as they go into today's fixture at Sheffield.

It is a far cry from last year, when the scale of the club's thrashings in the World Club Championships made Halifax a laughing stock on both sides of the world.

"The biggest difference from last year is that the spirit in the camp is a lot better," says Rowley. "There were little cliques, but now we all seem to get on really well together and that shows on the pitch. There have been times when last season we might have given up, but this year we've dug deep.

"It also has something to do with the new players who have been brought in. If I had to pick one out, it would be Gary Mercer. He's playing superbly and, with all his experience, he can steady the ship."

Rowley also gives great credit to his coach, John Pendlebury, with whom he played as a teenager at his home-town club, Leigh, and who almost walked out on Halifax two weeks ago.

"It would have been tragic if he had left. The players didn't want him to go. John's a straight talker and he's respected for that. I think that's what he wanted from the board of directors and hopefully it's done some good.''

Rowley, still only 22, says that his own role has changed this season. Although he was involved in protracted transfer speculation last year, his enterprise at the play-the-ball often seemed to be the side's one hope of breaching defences.

"I don't have the same feeling that it's up to me to produce something. Last season, it was all off the cuff; this time, it's more about a team performance.

"Nobody at Halifax is getting carried away over the start we've made. We've caught a couple of teams cold when they've underestimated us and that isn't going to happen any more. We know that a couple of defeats and we'll be on our way down to the bottom half of the table.

"Going to Sheffield will be our hardest game so far, because they will be looking to kick-start their season.''

This afternoon's match also brings him into direct opposition with John Lawless, who moved from Halifax after Rowley arrived.

"When I came to Halifax, he felt he had to go. He's got his own ways and he's been very successful. Like me, he likes having a run when the chance is there.''

Rowley might envy Lawless his Wembley appearance four weeks ago, but not the way that another hooker, Darren Turner, often replaces him.

"I'd hate that," he admits. "I'm an 80 minute man." An 80 minute man who has had his 15 minutes of fame for something else, but still sees the rugby field as the place to display his wares.