Countdown to Super League: Fielden ready to rumble again after winter of hard knocks and discontent

Indignities on and off field have left Wigan prop nursing injured pride but he remains a contender, writes Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

As he will no doubt be reminded by opponents and, from a safer distance, opposition fans when his Super League season starts on Friday, Stuart Fielden's aura of invincibility is not quite what it was.

Fielden went to Australia and New Zealand last autumn for the Tri-Nations with a reputation as the world's best prop just waiting to be nailed on. He had started 2006 with one of the great front-rower's performances in Bradford's World Club Challenge victory over Wests Tigers and finished it by playing a major part in dragging Wigan clear of relegation.

But not only did he play "like a load of rubbish", by his own exacting standards, in the Antipodes, he also suffered the indignity of being flattened by the most famous punch in recent rugby league history - Willie Mason's right hook.

Last Friday, he fought again and was stopped again; this time by his former Bradford team-mate and now Hull captain, Lee Radford, in a charity boxing event dubbed the "Rumble on the Humber". Even at Wigan's recent media day, he finished up on his backside again, when the chair on which he was swaying as he tried to take the sting out of a few friendly questions collapsed under his weight.

"Someone's trying to tell me something," he said. They will, Stu, they will.

On a rational level, Fielden dismisses his pugilistic failures as irrelevant. His version of the Mason incident is that he was caught by a lucky punch when he was not defending himself. No matter; the image that has been left on the public imagination is of the country's most formidable forward reeling and staggering.

Last Friday night was a different matter, with the referee stopping the bout less than 30 seconds into the second round, but with the brief spectacle raising an estimated £63,000 for Steve Prescott, the former St Helens and Hull full-back who is facing a fight of his own against a rare form of stomach cancer.

"I wondered what the referee was doing when he stepped in," Fielden said after the stoppage. "I felt OK to carry on, but obviously he didn't agree. To say I'm disappointed is an understatement, but it's not about that. It's not about me and it's not about Radders either.

"I'm a proud man. I gave my all and I couldn't have done any more. I was massively disappointed after being beaten and my pride was hurting, but when Steve comes into the ring - and it's an effort for him - and comes up to me and says thanks, what can I offer compared to the way he feels?"

The event had special significance for Fielden, who lost his mother to cancer a matter of weeks before the Tri-Nations, something that clearly affected him while he was away. He is a lot less concerned about his reputation as a fighter, however, than he is about his reputation as a rugby player.

To listen to Fielden talk, that reputation is in tatters. "I didn't enjoy any of the Tri-Nations," he insists. "When you're playing badly it affects every part of your life - and I was rubbish."

These things are relative. By normal standards, Fielden was OK. He never hid, he made few obvious mistakes; he just wasn't quite himself. The explosive power was missing, in both attack and defence; he was going through the motions.

"You can only be judged against the bar you've set yourself," Fielden says. "The Tri-Nations has seen me at my best and worst over the last two years and this time was definitely my worst."

There were extenuating circumstances. Apart from the death of his mother and the wear and tear of a season during which he had carried so much responsibility, he was dogged by a knee injury throughout the tournament - one which was officially played down but which preyed on his mind.

He damaged the knee in a warm-up game in Newcastle and kept playing in the hope that it would improve. "At the time, I felt it would come right, but it was probably detrimental to it to carry on," he says.

The knee was still giving him a few little reminders as the opening round of the Super League season, in which Wigan play Warrington on Friday night, approached.

Provided the knee stands up to the strain, however, Fielden's international frustrations could well be good news for his club. At 27, he is at a stage of his career where he would normally have little to prove, but his special circumstances mean that he feels as though he has a reputation to rebuild.

"If you're as good as your last game, I've got a lot to prove," he says. "I've got to improve massively from the Tri-Nations."

Fielden would like to make those improvements in 80-minute episodes. Of all modern front-rowers, he is the one who hates being substituted with the greatest passion and admits that he would have been happier in rugby league's dark ages, when props had no choice but to play a full match.

"It's a matter of pride with me and, if you feel you can do 80 minutes, it's very frustrating to be taken off. If you're playing well, you want to stay out there. Even if you're playing badly, you want to stay out there to try to put it right.

"But Brian Noble is quite clear about it. It's about the quality. If the quality is there, he'll leave me out there; if it's not, he won't. If you can play a full 80, it gives your coach a massive boost, because, in effect, it gives him an extra substitute, but the quality has to be there."

It was the quality rather than the quantity of his work that disappointed him in Australasia and this complex man is fiercely determined that the quality will be there right from the start of the domestic season.

Friday night's opponents are one side he picks out as a danger as Wigan set out to put the indignities of last year's relegation fight behind them from the start. Connoisseurs of a good scrap will be looking for a coming together of Fielden and the only other forward who can compete with him for impact and intimidating power, Adrian Morley.

"Warrington have strengthened and they've always been tough to play against. Then there's Hull. They got to the Grand Final last time and look to have recruited pretty well."

It is his own form that really concerns Fielden, however. In his ultra self-critical world, he is starting from scratch, which could be bad news for opponents, especially those who mention the names of Willie Mason and Lee Radford.

He might have lost those bouts, but the main event is to come and the sceptical ring-side judge he has to impress is himself.