Hilton finds his numbers finally start to add up

Click to follow

When Warrington face Wigan in Sunday's Powergen Challenge Cup semi-final, the tone will be set in the front row by a Wiganer who never played for his hometown club, but who credits his time there with turning his career around.

When Warrington face Wigan in Sunday's Powergen Challenge Cup semi-final, the tone will be set in the front row by a Wiganer who never played for his hometown club, but who credits his time there with turning his career around.

With three broken arms and as many equally serious shoulder injuries, Mark Hilton was renowned as one of the most injury-prone players in the game. When Warrington, the club he had joined from school, finally lost patience with him at the end of the 2000 season, Wigan threw him a lifeline.

"I'd never been a particular Wigan fan. I'd only started playing rugby at 15 and I'd been happy just to sign for any First Division club," he recalls.

All the same, a deal with his local club seemed too good a second chance to ignore, even if it ultimately came to nothing. "It was always dependent on the medical and when I failed that the contract was null and void. I was glad of the opportunity, even though it didn't pan out."

Hilton decided then that he would sit out the 2001 season, to give his body a realistic chance of recovering from the pounding he had been giving it. That turns out to be the best decision he ever made. Since signing up again with the Wolves, he has hardly missed a game and has been a cornerstone of Paul Cullen's pack.

Part of that, he believes, is simply due to using up his bad luck, but he might also be benefiting from a change in the way he plays the game.

Hilton's style has always been pretty much straight-ahead, slamming himself into the opposition in attack and defence. Now, as a veteran of 29, he has learnt the art of self-preservation, occasionally allowing himself the luxury of going past a tackle rather than straight into it.

The Wigan captain, Andy Farrell, with whom Hilton played as a teenager at Orrell St James, is one of those who has looked on in wonderment.

"He's found some feet from somewhere," he says. "Mark's game has always been about aggression and running as hard as he can, but he's started beating players and not getting whacked around the face as much. He's playing the best rugby of his career."

It's a change of outlook that hardly seems to fit with the nickname of "The Beast", which he has carried since arrived at Warrington as a raw youth who always wanted to take on the likes of Sunday's two coaches, Cullen and Mike Gregory, in training.

But Hilton is a surprising front-rower in a number of ways. Another calculation he made during his absence from the game was that he needed some alternative to rugby if his much-interrupted career came to a full stop.

That was why he started a part-time maths degree, which he finishes this year. "That season brought it home to me that your career can finish at any time. So I thought it was a good idea to have something else I could get into, and teaching maths seemed a good option, because there is a shortage." His new-found durability means that there is no immediate rush to get into a new line of work and he might decide to use his qualification in business or industry.

For now, though, his priority lies in trying to ensure that the latter stages of his career are more successful, as well as luckier, than his early years in the game.

"I couldn't be happier with the way things have worked out, because Paul Cullen has brought such belief into the club that I'm sure that there are good times ahead."

Hilton has a livid scar down the inside of one forearm as a reminder of the bad times for him and the team, during which the Warrington supporters remained famously loyal. "I remember when we were nearly relegated a couple of years ago. We went to Halifax and we were playing woeful. They were there in their numbers; they stuck with us then and now they're getting their reward."

After what he has been through, few of those fans - and not many of the Wigan supporters who never saw him in their colours - would begrudge him a bit of health and happiness in the time he has left in the game.

Comments