Parting roar of big beast: The Saint who tore up the rule book

Jamie Lyon will bid farewell to Super League in tomorrow's Grand Final. The Aussie pass master tells Dave Hadfield about life home and away
Click to follow
The Independent Online

At Old Trafford tomorrow night, British rugby league will bid a fond farewell to a player who has broken all the rules.

High-profile Australian players are not supposed to quit the top-flight game at the age of 22 and retreat to the one-horse country town of Wee Waa in the outback of New South Wales.

They are not supposed to come to Britain in their prime rather than their dotage and revive rather than wind down their careers.

Most of all, they do not rehabilitate themselves to the extent where all is forgiven and forgotten, and they are not only able to resume their Australian club careers but are also recalled into the national squad from the other side of the world.

But, then again, not many players can slip a pass almost blind, out of the back of the hand, at full speed, straight to a winger he can only sense looming outside him.

Jamie Lyon, who plays his last game for St Helens against Hull in the Super League Grand Final, is coming to the end of two seasons in which he has been exceptional in every way.

In his first, he was an obvious winner of the Man of Steel award as the game's outstanding player. He has probably failed to repeat the feat this time only because teams have concentrated so hard on stopping him that they have conceded oceans of space to Saints team-mates around him.

"As long as we're winning games, I'm not too worried," he says. Lyon, though, is the sort of laid-back country boy who seems unlikely to worry about much - including the reception he will get back home from those who regard him as little better than a deserter.

No less influential a voice than that of his Parramatta and Australia predecessor Peter Sterling has raised the question of whether the red carpet should be rolled out or rolled up.

"I don't want him back in the Test side and I don't want him back in the NRL," Sterling said last week. "He's had a great season over there, but I just think he showed no style or class or grace in the way he left our club."

Lyon, who has shown an abundance of those qualities on the pitch, takes that condemnation in his stride. "It doesn't really worry me what he thinks," he says. "I couldn't really care less to tell you the truth." Lyon has decided, after listening to Saints' attempts to get him to stay, to join Manly next season, but he will carry vivid memories of his time at Knowsley Road.

It has always been something of a bone of contention about who made the initial move for him, Ian Millward, or the board who sacked him as coach a few months later. Both are understandably willing to take their share of the credit, but Lyon's recollection is that it was the old thoroughbred centre and long-serving Saints director, Eric Ashton, who made the early running. "I was away from football for a while, just playing local out there. I got the call and it was something different, something I needed at the time."

His time in England did not begin well. He was held up in customs and a mate who had travelled with him was turned back. Saints' captain, Paul Sculthorpe, collected him and took him home and Lyon began to get the feeling that he was going to be all right in his new surroundings. "He was really good and ever since then it's got better. I've had a great time and I'm going to miss a lot of people."

Even on the field, though, he did not have the easiest of introductions. "Starting off, it was a bit cold and wet - terrible. But once the grounds started to dry up I started to play some better football. It reminded me how much I missed the game. We had a few good wins and I got my hunger back."

Despite all his individual awards and helping Saints to the League Leaders' Shield, last season ended in bitter disappointment for Lyon and the club, with play-off defeats by Leeds and Bradford knocking them out of contention. "I don't think I even watched the Grand Final last year," he says.

This year he will be the one who needs to be watched, especially for that unorthodox back-handed pass that has become his trademark.

He has some reassurance for those already pining for the loss of that sublime skill from the British game. His replacement at Saints next year, Matthew Gidley, is the player from whom he learnt it.

It was also alongside Gidley that Lyon played for Australia as a 21-year-old. If he reclaims his place for the latter stages of this year's Tri-Nations, he expects to have his hands full with his current team-mates in Great Britain's ranks. "There's a lot of young blokes coming through who have really got some talent, especially our blokes from St Helens. People like James Roby and James Graham are going to be around for years to come."

Jamie Lyon is not. We have only one last game from him to savour in this country and it would be the only fitting finale to his two years if he made it a memorable one.