Fielden out to stay the distance for England

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The Independent Online

For a young man who represents the future face of forward play, Stuart Fielden has some refreshingly old-fashioned attitudes. No, he did not wake up last Sunday morning feeling that he had done anything exceptional the day before, even if the idea of a prop playing all but a few minutes of an international sounds like something from another era.

For a young man who represents the future face of forward play, Stuart Fielden has some refreshingly old-fashioned attitudes. No, he did not wake up last Sunday morning feeling that he had done anything exceptional the day before, even if the idea of a prop playing all but a few minutes of an international sounds like something from another era.

"I've done it five or six times for Bradford this year," the 21-year-old says. "I prefer it that way. It seems unusual because coaches like to bring players on for impact. I try to make an impact and stay on for as long as I can."

Fielden is speaking the language of a different age, but his style of play is profoundly modern. He might set out to be durable above all else, but his mobility and sheer athleticism were there for all to see when he chased back to make the vital tackle of the match on Ireland's Kevin Campion at Headingley on Saturday.

No wonder that the chief executive of another Super League club says: "He has the ability to be the best front-row forward in the world - better than anyone in Australia or New Zealand."

Yet Fielden was a late developer. His sport in his early teens was limited to playing football and travelling from Yorkshire to watch Burnley with his dad. "I was a football person, but my half-brother, Adam Greenwood, played for what was then Bradford Northern and I went to watch him a couple of times."

When he did get the bug his progress was rapid. He had only played a handful of games before being picked for Yorkshire in his age group and by 1996 he was on Bradford's books himself. Two years later he was on the fringe of the first team and after a full season in that company in 1999 he was taken on Great Britain's short tour to Australasia last autumn. A rib injury limited his involvement, but he got a close look at the New Zealand forwards he will face in England's World Cup semi-final at Bolton tomorrow.

Confronting the likes of Craig Smith, Quentin Pongia and Joe Vagana - a likely team-mate at Bradford next season - would be a daunting prospect for some young forwards, but Fielden, if allowed to, would love to go the full 80 minutes against them. "For any professional worth his salt, you're going to want to play in the hardest games and this is one of them," he says. "They're second in the world and this is the sort of game that you do all the training for. I'd love to play the entire 80 minutes, but I think it's going to be a very physical match."

Fielden knows all about the physical demands of the game from some painful personal experience. Some, such as his former Bradford coach, Matthew Elliott, fear that he already knows too much about that aspect, having taken more than his share of high tackles in his relatively short career so far.

Last Saturday was no exception, Fielden copping a clattering high tackle from Barrie McDermott, which saw the Leeds man become the first player in a generally well disciplined tournament to be punished with a suspension. Characteristically, the victim jumped straight up again. "High shots aren't unfamiliar to me," he says with some understatement. "But if you can get up, you get up. You don't mess around lying on the ground."

Fielden does not believe that he contributes to his own downfall, as some claim, by running with his head stuck up too temptingly. "I don't think I run with my head up more than any other player," he says. "It's just that more people like to smack me around it."

The obvious damage so far is limited to the occasional headache the following morning but it does give him some cause for concern. "The long-term effects are a bit of a worry. You see someone like Muhammad Ali and it's a worry for any sportsman. I've tried wearing head-gear and I can't stand it. It's just not comfortable, but it would be better than having to finish with the game."

You could argue that it is a condemnation of the game and the protection it provides for its players that one of rugby league's strongest and fittest young stars should have to be thinking along these lines a couple of years into his career. The good news for England is that it is unlikely to affect the way he goes about his job at the Reebok Stadium tomorrow. Stuart Fielden - the game's would-be 80-minute man - not only accepts the knocks as part of the job, he wants to stay out there longer and take more of them.

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