Nowhere Man regains command of destiny as the Comeback Kid takes to home stage

Jamie Thackray almost quit, but aims to cap the season with aTri-Nations final for Great Britain. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online

Not much more than a year ago, Jamie Thackray was thinking of calling it quits and going to work in a warehouse. Such was the faltering rhythm of his rugby league career that it stacked up as the more realistic option.

Today, he will run out at his home ground, the KC Stadium in Hull against Australia, as an established Great Britain player after one of the most remarkable of turnarounds.

Thackray had suffered more than his share of injuries as an emerging player with Hunslet and Halifax. Then, at Castleford, he broke his arm twice and played fewer than 20 games in two years. Small wonder that premature retirement crossed his mind.

"I didn't play for 11 months," he recalls. "I was just running round Pontefract Park with Tommy Saxton to try to keep fit. Even when Hull came in for me people were saying, 'What have we signed Thackray for? He's bound to break down again'."

The Hull coach, John Kear, convinced Thackray that he had nothing to prove to him. "I kept telling him, 'I'll be all right, I'll be all right' and he said, 'Don't worry, I know you will.'"

Both have been proved triumphantly right. "I've won a Challenge Cup final, played every Super League game, made the Dream Team, played for my country. You can't achieve much more in a season than that."

Apart from playing in a Tri-Nations final, that is, and Thackray has already had a premonition about that. "I went to the final at Elland Road last year and I said to myself that I'd be there this season." A victory today, provided it is by more than two points, would make that unlikely prediction come true.

Not that Thackray takes the sudden transformation in his fortunes for granted. He admits to feeling like the new kid at school when he was called up into the national squad for the first time.

"There were a lot of players I didn't really know, maybe didn't think much of," he says, "but when you get to know them they're good blokes."

Their opinion of the new kid on the block has grown as well. His Test captain, Jamie Peacock, is one who speaks in glowing terms of the impact he can make on a match. "You can throw him on for 10 minutes to knock people about," he says. "He's a unique player in that way and he's very difficult to tackle, as I know from experience."

So far in his international career, Thackray has been used exclusively as an impact forward, coming off the bench for short, intense bursts of action.

Like any player worth his salt, he hankers after more game time, but is concentrating for now on contributing as much as he can when he is on the field.

"It makes my job easier when the other forwards are playing so well," he says. "I try to go on and add some more enthusiasm.

"I always try to give the team a lift with a good run, a big hit or a quick play-the-ball. You can get nervous sitting there waiting to go on, so you need to get that out of your system straight away."

Thackray and the Australian pack - long rated as the world's best - were strangers to each other when they first met two weeks ago, but, even in defeat, his all-action style quickly banished any fear that he might be overawed.

"When I was on the field, I got the feeling that we were dominating Australia. We were pretty dominant in the forwards, but I'm expecting them to step it up this week, because this is one they've got to win."

Thackray does not believe that Britain could be playing on a ground more helpful to them than the KC Stadium, the arena where he has turned his own career around.

"Hull has the best fans in Super League. Wherever we go, they're there in their thousands. At home, it feels like a full house with 10 or 12,000 on, because they're so noisy.

"It will be twice as noisy this week. The atmosphere will be electric and it will be like having an extra man on the field."

For the man who has come from nowhere to become Great Britain's extra ingredient this year, it will be a little more exciting than working in a warehouse.