Crabtree is the Big Daddy now

England's prop – and nephew of the famous wrestler – has won a name for himself as a fearsome impact player. Ahead of the Four Nations final, he tells Dave Hadfield how he ditched his delicate reputation
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The Independent Online

If Nikolai Valuev was, at least until last Saturday, "The Beast from the East", then Eorl Crabtree can claim to be the most notable of the BFGs from Kirklees.

Time was when the Huddersfield prop was a bit too much of the Big Friendly Giant for some tastes. Too one-paced and placid, it used to be whispered, short of aggression. Which is some accusation when you consider the identity of Eorl's uncle: The unforgettably named Shirley Crabtree, the all-in wrestler better known as Big Daddy, who was also a decent league player in his day.

The talk of tenderness could be why Crabtree has had to wait until the age of 27 and the eve of his testimonial season for his first senior England cap, but in this Four Nations tournament he has shown that any casual dismissal of him as a gentle giant is well wide of the mark.

In his appearances against Australia and New Zealand – both times coming off the bench, as he will in tomorrow's final against the Aussies at Elland Road – he has made more of an impact than any other England forward, combining the basic essentials of hard running and tackling with a deceptively delicate flair for slipping the ball out to men in support.

He grew up watching the likes of Lee Crooks and aspiring to do what he could do with a ball from the front row. It is an old skill which he is largely responsible for bringing back into the mainstream of the game.

"I've had coaches who have tried to stop me doing it and tried to change my game, but the way I see it is that it's one of the things that makes me different," said Crabtree as he prepared for the final . "The season before that, I hardly did any of the things that I enjoy on the field – I just made the hard yards.

"But since Nathan Brown arrived as coach at Huddersfield, he's made me more aware of what I'm good at. He's said is that I shouldn't force the pass."

That important proviso is something he has clearly taken to heart. He has made more off-loads than any England forward and not a single one of them has gone to ground. Nor, for that matter, has he missed a tackle. It is a remarkable, if delayed start to a Test career.

"If you had asked me three or four years ago, I'd have said that I should be in the side and that I was filthy that I wasn't.

"But I have to admit now that it was probably a good thing. After having to wait, it's made me appreciate being in the camp more, because that was always where I wanted to be."

Within the England camp, Crabtree, through force of necessity, gets some special treatment. Unlike other players, he gets a room to himself, because he is simply too big to share and needs both beds shoved together if he is going to be comfortable.

At 6ft 6in and well over 18st, he is the biggest player in Super League – although he had a year in the centres under the coaching of the current England coach, Tony Smith, designed to improve his balance and footwork.

Apart from his sheer stature, the other unavoidable topic with Crabtree is his family tree. His wrestling uncle, who brought joy to many on Saturday afternoons throughout the the Seventies and Eighties, never progressed beyond the reserve side at Bradford Northern before the demands of the grunt-and-groan discipline took over. His father, Eorl's granddad, was a first-teamer at Huddersfield. Both have passed away, Big Daddy in 1997 at the age of just 67 following a stroke. "Obviously the Crabtrees are a big sporting family and I know that they would both have been proud of what I've achieved," he says.

After a game like last Saturday's at the Galpharm, however, he can now be found among the new branches of the Crabtree clan – one of whom genuinely carries the name of Twigg.

Surrounded by nephews and nieces, he looks, with his flowing locks, uncannily like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. "My biggest supporter these days is probably my three-year-old niece, Olivia," he says. "She's absolutely fanatical."

Of course, the hard-headed operatives who occupy the Australian front-row positions will not be misled by this cuddly image.

No-one knows more about the realities of the role than Petero Civoniceva, on the brink of his 40th Test cap for the Kangaroos, and he has taken special notice of the distinctive figure of Crabtree. "I've seen quite a few Super League games this year and I always notice him because of his sheer size and his mobility," he says. "He was one of the big factors in the way England played in the second half against us and in the match against New Zealand."

But when you are Eorl Crabtree, with a hotel room and two beds to yourself, you can hardly be a small factor.