Ford fired up for local challenge

RUGBY LEAGUE: A scrum-half is back at the top after a miserable experience `down under'; Dave Hadfield reports on a key figure in tomorrow's Regal Trophy semi- final
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The Independent Online
For Mike Ford, the Regal Trophy semi-final against St Helens represents everything that he missed about the English game during his ill-fated exile in Australia.

Ford was one of the two top scrum-halves in Britain when he forsook Castleford for Queensland 18 months ago. His hopes for a new career in the Winfield Cup were high and it seemed that England had seen the last of him.

Now he is back, wearing the No 7 shirt for Warrington and eagerly looking forward to the first big game since his return. "I'm just glad to be involved in a game like this. This sort of local rivalry is what I missed in Australia," he says.

Ford's stint with the newly-formed South Queensland Crushers started solidly enough, with the English import holding down a first-grade spot. "But then our coach, Bob Lindner, dropped a bombshell by telling me that he had never rated me and wouldn't be picking me if he had any choice in the matter."

Ford had been attracted to the Crushers by his former Castleford coach, Darryl Van de Velde, who quite clearly did rate him. But, with Lindner calling the shots and Van de Velde on his way out, there was little future there for him. "It was a shame, because we had just got settled there and the family loved it in Australia."

But Ford needed a lifeline to rescue his playing career - and it came from Warrington, who saw his guile and experience as the ideal ingredient to blend with the youthful, instinctive talent of Iestyn Harris at stand- off. "I'm relishing it," says Ford of the new combination. "I think we are going to complement each other pretty well.

"Iestyn is a running No 6. Such is his enthusiasm for the game that he wants the ball all the time and he gives me a wealth of options. I've only known Tony Kemp at Castleford and Brett Kenny, during our one season together at Wigan, who have been anything like him."

Mention of Kenny tends to date Ford, who partnered him throughout the 1984/85 season that marked the start of Wigan's renaissance. It says everything about his early promise, as well, that the young scrum-half never looked out of place alongside one of the game's great stylists.

After that dazzling early phase - including victory at Wembley in the best-ever Challenge Cup final - his career became a fluctuating affair, taking him to Leigh and Oldham before he once more began to fulfil his potential under Van de Velde at Castleford, winning his two Great Britain caps in 1993.

By one of the coincidences that goes hand-in-hand with the village culture that he missed when he left English rugby league, the semi-final, which will be played tomorrow, weather permitting, also brings him into confrontation with a player whose career has parallels with his own.

Bobbie Goulding was also a scrum-half prodigy at Wigan and has also followed a nomadic career path since. "I'm looking forward to playing against Bobbie, so that I can measure myself and how well I'm slotting back into the game here," he says. "He was in great form during my last season at Castleford and everybody says he was even better last time around. We have certainly got to get up on him, because he is undoubtedly their key man."

Now 30 and with the benefit of all his varied experience behind him, Ford is earmarked as Warrington's key man in the first couple of Super League seasons.

For him, the revelation has been the quality of the young players the Wire have drawn in, particularly the 18-year-old Paul Sculthorpe, whom he remembers as a schoolboy who haunted every Oldham training session, rain or shine.

"When I think back to what I was like at 18, he is 10 times better," he insists. That assessment bodes well for Warrington's future. As far as the unfinished business of this transitional season is concerned - including what could be the last Regal Trophy - fresh talents like Harris and Sculthorpe will be only too glad for the steadying influence of Ford.