Move over Becks, this man is the face of the future... and he isn't even a footballer

Dave Hadfield has a close shave with Paul Sculthorpe, the man set to be the most recognised face in rugby league

When a major national and international company chooses sportsmen to front its advertising campaigns it looks for faces which are instantly familiar.

Small wonder then that Gillette's No 1 man should be David Beckham, a celebrity on the scale that prevents him from stepping outside the stockade without being mobbed.

Their next man in line doesn't quite have that problem. He can walk down the High Street in his home town of Oldham, in Warrington where he used to play, or in St Helens, where he earns his living now, and be subjected to nothing more intrusive than the odd request for an autograph and an occasional "how do, Scully''.

A few miles away, he could wander around without being identified at all, but that could be about to change. Paul Sculthorpe could be set to become the most recognisable face rugby league has had in a couple of decades.

This week, he will be taking a break from his recuperation from the thigh muscle injury that is keeping him out of Saints' side for a photo-shoot that will form the basis of a major poster and press campaign for a new product to be launched this autumn. No rugby league outfit has had that sort of exposure since the Fulham team of the early Eighties got their kit off for a beer advert.

So why, when they were looking for the next best bet after Beckham to brandish their blades, did they turn to him? The trite answer, says Gillette's UK sales director, Tony Colquitt, is that: "I'm a St Helens fan and he plays for St Helens.''

There is a little more to it than that. The company wanted to get a rugby player on board, Jonny Wilkinson has an unsuitable surname and Sculthorpe came out of their market research with flying colours.

"We did a lot or research and he is perceived everywhere as being at the top of the tree. Even in other rugby league towns, there isn't much animosity, and nationally Paul was one player who came out with really high recognition.''

That is news to Sculthorpe himself, who does not yet have to go too far from his home in Billinge, between Wigan and St Helens, before he can slip comfortably into a cloak of anonymity that no longer fits Beckham anywhere in the world.

"I am a couple of quid behind him on this deal,'' he says. "He gets a lot of nice things, but not to be able to have your freedom as well must be awful. I get recognised sometimes, but it is on a totally different level.''

While Sculthorpe shares with Beckham a prominence within his own sport - indeed, there would be greater unanimity over his status in league - he has few of the other trappings of celebrity.

He is never likely to be seen in a sarong or with an eagle tattooed on the back of his neck, his wife used to work in Littlewoods, rather than the Spice Girls and his closest brush with notoriety is that he lives next door but one to Sean Long, one of the two Saints' players currently serving suspensions for betting against their own club.

Sculthorpe says that it is bad enough being on the sidelines with injury, as he is likely to be for the next six weeks, "but it's a lot worse when you are perfectly fit and aren't allowed to play.

"Long and Martin Gleeson are handling it well. They are doing a lot of training on their own, but they were totally devastated. My own view is that the punishment they were given [three months for Long and four for Gleeson] was far too much.''

At the moment, Sculthorpe will have more time than usual to reflect on such matters, as well as the progress of his own career, on and off the field.

If he has one unfulfilled ambition it is to captain Great Britain, a route currently blocked off by Andy Farrell, who, at 29, is three years his senior, the only British player of comparable standing, and, along with Martin Johnson, the focus of a Tetley's advertising campaign last year.

"It's something I definitely want to do. It was my goal right from being a young amateur player, but I am a big mate of Faz. I think he is a great captain and gets a lot of unfair stick.

"I will always be happy to play under his captaincy, but if they offered me the job I'd take it with both hands.''

Inheriting the St Helens captaincy from Chris Joynt seems to have given Sculthorpe a new confidence and self-assurance, as does the increasing amounts of media work in which he is involved.

At one time, he was typical of many in the game, in that he could be articulate and engaging in person, but tended to turn stiff and wooden when a microphone was thrust in front of him. He still does not have Beckham's practised ease in front of the cameras but he is getting there.

"It definitely gets easier the more you do. I feel very relaxed on TV now. I enjoy it, which I never used to, and it helped that I spoke to a few people about advice on different things.''

For as long as he is their face of rugby, Gillette will no doubt be grooming him in more ways than one - and paying him accordingly. Not that he is ever likely to muscle in on Beckham's earning bracket; as a leading light in rugby league his annual income will be somewhere between a 10th and a 20th of that of the footballing icon and his endorsement value is probably in line with that.

"Mind you,'' says Colquitt. David isn't get anything like the $4m (£2.2m) from us that I've seen suggested. Paul is a good way behind him, but it will still be the biggest endorsement deal ever for a rugby league player.''

There is, however, no such thing as a free shave in the cut-throat world of business and his new profile brings lifestyle restrictions with it. "Part of the deal is that I have to be clean-shaven,'' says Sculthorpe. "I don't know how Becks goes on with that little goatee he has sometimes.''

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