Crabtree gets to grips with legacy of Shirley

Huddersfield's front-rower may be known as the nephew of wrestler Big Daddy, but he is fighting his own corner.
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Eorl Crabtree cuts a distinctive figure in rugby league. Nobody looks like him or weighs in like him, as he is unofficially the biggest player in the game.

Eorl Crabtree cuts a distinctive figure in rugby league. Nobody looks like him or weighs in like him, as he is unofficially the biggest player in the game.

Nobody else is called Eorl, although when you've had an uncle named Shirley that almost qualifies as normal.

Shirley Crabtree was the legendary wrestler Big Daddy. Eorl would qualify comfortably for the ring-name of Big Nephew, and nobody at Huddersfield has made more giant strides than him this season.

"I didn't really know him that well," says Eorl of his famous uncle. "He lived in Halifax. I followed his career and I watched him a few times. I suppose he was an influence on me, but he was more of an idol."

Big Daddy died five years ago, just as his nephew's sporting career was starting to take shape. He had been playing for one of Huddersfield's amateur rugby league clubs, Underbank, but had been forced to take a break from the game.

"I was growing too fast." he says. "My muscles couldn't keep up with my bones, so the bones in my joints were rubbing against each other, which was pretty painful."

When he returned to rugby, it was to the union code, with the Huddersfield YMCA club, then coached by the former Great Britain rugby league coach - and future England rugby union staff man - Phil Larder.

He played for Yorkshire at Under-16s, but the YMCA also runs a league side and he was persuaded to have a run with them. His form in a local cup final was so eye-catching that Huddersfield signed him and the direction of his sporting life was decided.

It is no wonder that Crabtree caught the eye. Quite apart from being 6ft 6in, his shoulder-length blond hair makes him stand out in a game where a close crop is more of the norm.

It could be the wrestling genes coming out in the way that he has unconsciously created a persona for himself, but he identifies more practical consequences. "There's no chance of getting away with anything. If you make a mistake, the coaches can see it was you from miles away.

"Being so big helps on the field, there's no doubt about that, but it can also make you a target. That's all right, as long as you can take it on the chin."

That harsh fact of life was evident in Huddersfield's last game, the home defeat by St Helens on Wednesday, in which Crabtree not only performed the rare feat for the modern front-rower of playing the full 80 minutes but also locked horns several times with the prop currently regarded as being as intimidating as any in the game, Saints' Nick Fozzard.

"We always have a good battle, me and Fozzy. We like a bit of rough and tumble." Had it been the best of three falls, three submissions or a knockout, it would have been a close call between them, which impressed the Giants' coach, Jon Sharp. "Eorl's right on top of his game at the moment. I thought it would be an interesting challenge for him and he came out of it with credit,'' Sharp said.

Crabtree admitted to feeling "shattered" but was still planning to work on the house he is renovating for himself, his partner, two step-children and one daughter.

"I have a pretty busy life, but I still manage to sneak off for a spot of fishing with a few of the Huddersfield lads. Sometimes I tell her that the training goes on a bit longer than it does."

Training under Sharp already goes on longer than it does at most clubs. The type of preparation, typified by a pre-season stint at an Army camp in North Yorkshire while other squads were sunning themselves in the Mediterranean, is one reason for the Giants making such a good start to the campaign - despite Wednesday's defeat, they remain in the top six - and for Crabtree's own accelerated development. They even do a bit of wrestling, a discipline in which he should have an unfair advantage.

Until recently, he has been seen primarily as an impact player, often brought into the game from the bench as a shock weapon. He spent most of one season as probably the world's biggest centre, something that helped his speed and agility. But his ambition now, still at the tender age of 21, is to be a starting prop, a role he hopes to retain against Widnes today.

This season's performances, especially a man-of-the-match effort at Warrington, have seen him touted for representative honours in the not too distant future. "It's nice to be mentioned like that, but I don't want to set my goals too high. Playing for Great Britain would be a massive ask, but if a chance came I'd be up for it.''

If we are one day going to have a Test prop called Eorl, we had better know how that eccentric spelling came about.

"You'd better ask my parents," he says. "But it's a bit of a family tradition and it could have been worse - I've got cousins called Reeve and Asa." Not to mention an uncle Shirley who would have been rather proud of the way he has got to grips with his sporting career.