Nigel Wright: Busy juggling Canary Wharf gym job and leading Barrow

A former Wigan favourite plans to give his old club a proper workout in the cup
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The Independent Online

It is 13 years since Wigan gave up hope of ever seeing a fit Nigel Wright, but this Sunday a circuitous route leads him back to the club.

Wright was the game's most expensive teenager when Wigan paid Wakefield £140,000 for him in 1993. Arguably the last of the old-fashioned, ball-playing stand-offs, he was a special talent, but in five years he managed just 36 games. After a brief attempt to revive his career at Huddersfield, he went into premature retirement, but he is back this weekend via Australia, London and Barrow.

Wright has been coaching Barrow for their Carnegie Challenge Cup fourth-round tie against the Super League champions, but through his company, Body Reform International, he has also been putting a succession of well-heeled clients through their paces at Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

It is a strange split life, coaching city professionals through the week and a professional rugby league team 300 miles away at the weekend, but nothing ever worked out exactly as planned for Nigel Wright.

"It's a busy life and it's obviously not ideal, but Barrow knew the situation when they appointed me. They asked me to take over when Garry Schofield left early in the season, but I wasn't prepared to give this up," he says of his other life as a freelance fitness instructor in an upmarket gym. "I know enough about rugby league to know that there isn't much longevity in it."

Wright has found that out the hard way, through the bitter experience of one of the great careers that might have been. At his hometown club, Wakefield, he thrived under the wing of a former stand-off great, the late David Topliss, and it was not long before bigger clubs came knocking.

"I was supposed to be going to Halifax. Malcolm Reilly wanted me, but I'd had a couple of big games against Wigan and, in those days, what Wigan wanted Wigan got."

It was clear why Wigan wanted Wright. With his ability to take on the defensive line, draw tacklers and put a man through a gap, he recalled the great days of British stand-off play.

"I modelled my game on Tony Myler. Unfortunately, I also had the same sort of injury record. Playing the way we did, you always had to be prepared. Perhaps that was why we were both always injured."

When a last major operation, a shoulder reconstruction, forced him out of the game, he did not sit around feeling sorry for himself.

"I'd had five great years at Wigan, played in a couple of finals, missed a few more and a few Great Britain caps I might have won, but the club and fans were always great with me. They knew I desperately wanted to play and I think they respected that."

When he accepted that he could no longer do so, Wright took himself off to Australia, where he adopted the twin-track approach to his career that he carries on to this day.

He became – and still is – the co-owner of a fitness centre in Sydney. At the same time, he began coaching the junior teams at the Penrith club, earning a good reputation and progressing as far as the reserve grade side. "I haven't finished in Australia, but the time was right for me to come back to Britain and try to raise my profile as a coach."

A couple of short-lived assistant's jobs followed before Schofield, another member of the old-time stand-offs' hall of fame, asked him to go with him to Barrow – a once great club now battling along in the Championship with dreams of Super League at some stage in the future.

Perhaps predictably, the outspoken Schofield did not last long under the chairmanship of the equally outspoken Des Johnson.

Ironically, one of the performances that cost the former Great Britain captain his job was an untidy win over the amateurs of Leigh Miners in the previous round of the cup.

"That was more or less a case of 'you score, we score'. This will be a very different game. We will play a lot tighter and I don't think it's giving any secrets away to say that we'll be trying to slow the game down."

There will be familiar faces from his own time there, like Shaun Wane and Kris Radlinski, trying to stop Barrow doing that. "For me, Wigan are the best club in the game," Wright said. "Respectability, that's what we're after. We've got plenty of players who've played in Super League and I'll be asking them to draw on that."

Barrow also have some encouraging league results to their credit since Wright took over, including wins over Widnes and Halifax.

That has not yet entirely convinced him that his two roles are compatible in the long term. "I'll just give it to the end of the season and see how it goes," he says. "The two things are totally different. Today I'll be in the gym from 6.30 in the morning to eight at night, with 12 or 14 clients, ranging from a pregnant woman, who's due in five weeks, and a Swiss skier.

"It keeps you on your toes," he says. "But the job at Barrow is more or less about man-management."

From Friday night until after the game on Sunday it is, at least.