Final all in a day's work for Leeds' bearded one

Hard-grafting Jamie Jones-Buchanan hopes a bet pays off in grand style against St Helens at Old Trafford tomorrow. Dave Hadfield reports
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Jamie Jones-Buchanan neither looks nor prepares for a big game like a typical rugby league player. The Leeds second rower spent last night as he always does Thursday evenings – coaching the Under-16s at Stanningley, the amateur club on the outskirts of the city where he first learned the game himself.

On top of his training schedule with the Rhinos as they prepare for tomorrow's Grand Final at Old Trafford against St Helens, JonesBuchanan is on a course at Leeds Metropolitan University, and he admits that it all keeps him pretty busy.

"But it's a way of putting something back," he says, "and quite a few other players do something similar at their old clubs. We're all pretty down to earth and once a rugby player, always a rugby player. You don't get that toffee-nosed stuff you get from footballers."

Jones-Buchanan does not see in himself the sort of star quality that is obvious in team-mates like Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock, four years his senior at Stanningley.

"I'm just the sort of player who has to work very hard," he says. "Fortunately Tony Smith is happy for me to do that."

It is under Smith's coaching that Jones-Buchanan's career has finally flourished at Headingley after a series of false starts with injuries in his formative early seasons with the club. Despite his lack of pretension, he would be many Leeds supporters' choice as their player of the season, so consistent and committed has he been.

It was therefore a disappointment not to be included in the Great Britain squad for the mid-season international against France. Not that he is unduly worried about it.

"There's an unbelievable amount of competition for the back-row places. Just looking at this Grand Final, Saints have Jon Wilkin and Lee Gilmour and Leeds have Kevin Sinfield and Gareth Ellis, who must be one of the best in the world at the moment. I've just got to work hard and keep progressing. It might help me that Tony Smith is the Great Britain coach now, although I haven't really spoken to him about it."

In one respect JonesBuchanan has become a more eye-catching player this season. Early in the campaign, he started growing an extravagant beard for a bet and it has now reached the stage where it has changed his whole appearance.

"I've had all the comments from crowds about al-Qa'ida and being a Muslim terrorist and I don't resent it one little bit," he said. " They have to give me abuse, it's been more funny than anything."

There was a stage where most of his Leeds team-mates showed solidarity with him by growing or attempting to grow beards of their own. "There were some pathetic efforts, but Keith Senior did the best," he said. " I've said I'll keep mine to the end of the season and then raise money for charity by having it shaved off. I'm getting married next year and I've been told it's got to go, so I can't get too attached to it. Besides, I'd rather be known as a good player, rather than someone who happens to have a big beard."

Jones-Buchanan has already achieved that, with his personal work ethic typifying the tough streak that Smith has built in to the side during his four years in charge. That was never more apparent than in the near-perfect victory over Wigan that set up tomorrow's Grand Final against Saints.

"It showed how switched-on the lads were and how much they wanted it. This has been one of those seasons which has been really tough from start to finish, because the competition has concertina-ed so that bottom can beat top.

"That's one reason why it would be special to win it this year. The other thing is that, for lads like me who have been with Tony all the way through, we would like to finish an era by winning the Grand Final. I owe him a lot. I've never been a flashy player, but he has always appreciated me for what I am."

Meanwhile, Sean Long and Maurie Fa'asavalu have resumed training with St Helens, hoping to claim their places at Old Trafford tomorrow. A decision is likely to be made on both players' fitness after a final run-out today.

* Anthony Thackeray and Mark Leafa have both re-signed for promoted Castleford, who are also being linked with the Catalan Dragons' French international prop Adel Fellous.