Perelini's heart set on return to old horizons

St Helens' prop forward will cherish Saturday's rugby league Grand Final but has no regrets over his decision to switch codes
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The Independent Online

When Wigan and St Helens have finished knocking lumps off each other on Saturday, Old Trafford will be a place awash with sentimental farewells. Of those likely to be playing in Super League's Grand Final, Saints' Fereti Tuilagi and Julian O'Neill, as well as Wigan's Jason Robinson, Tony Smith, Willie Peters, Tony Mestrov and Brady Malam, are all due to be playing their final games for their clubs.

When Wigan and St Helens have finished knocking lumps off each other on Saturday, Old Trafford will be a place awash with sentimental farewells. Of those likely to be playing in Super League's Grand Final, Saints' Fereti Tuilagi and Julian O'Neill, as well as Wigan's Jason Robinson, Tony Smith, Willie Peters, Tony Mestrov and Brady Malam, are all due to be playing their final games for their clubs.

Given the paucity of truly commanding prop forwards in the British game, few of them will be missed more than Apollo Perelini, who is returning to rugby union with Sale after six rewarding seasons in rugby league with Saints.

"Win or lose, I'm going to have a good day," he says. "I've achieved a lot in my time at St Helens, so it's going to be a very emotional time for me. But win or lose, I want to take it all in.

"The atmosphere at a rugby league Grand Final is amazing. I'm going to miss that, as well as the people involved with the game."

For all that, Perelini has no regrets about returning to his first love, to play rugby union for Sale. For one thing, the money is pretty good; for another, the nature of the game might just suit him better now that he is into his 30s. "I've no regrets. I'm looking forward to a new challenge at Sale, helping them towards their long-term goals. I'm going to be sad to leave rugby league. I could have had another couple of years before retiring, but rugby league is a lot faster compared with what it was like when I started in 1994.

"The pace of it has increased every year. It's a game for young, athletic men, although I've never had any doubts yet about being able to keep up."

Perelini also recognises that he will be going back to a game that has changed radically since, as a member of the famous Western Samoa team that beat Wales, he crossed what was then still the great divide. "Rugby union has sped up a lot as well. The game in Europe has developed tremendously in the last three or four years and is very competitive now with the southern hemisphere."

Perelini will not be embarking on a new career at Sale on his own, because one of Saturday's Grand Final opponents will be making the same switch.

"Jason Robinson is a good friend of mine and we keep in close contact and meet as often as we can. We know each other through the church. We have the same faith and believe in the same things, which helps, and it's going to be great playing together."

While Perelini is a proven force in union, Robinson has only a brief stay at Bath to demonstrate his aptitude - or otherwise - for the code. "I think he'll make the transition. The people at Sale will help him make the transition comfortably. He will certainly exploit any gaps in defence, but his own defence is very good as well. He doesn't miss many."

Perelini is aware of the criticism that, this season especially, try-scoring opportunities are too rare in top-flight rugby union for it to really pass muster as a spectacle. "Jason and I were talking the other day about when gaps appear and we think that some of the best are when the opposition is expecting the full-back to kick. It's a matter of Jason spotting those opportunities and taking advantage."

It is more than possible, of course, that Robinson's eye for the half-chance could ruin Perelini's day out at Old Trafford. Either way, it will be his last game of rugby league. His Sale contract will prevent him from playing for Samoa in the Lincoln Rugby League World Cup. "It's a big event, but I've played in one World Cup and I'm not sentimental about it," he says. I will be following the Samoan team's progress, though."

Nor will he consider a return at club level to the code in which he has prospered for the last six years. Even if Sale take over Warrington - a prospect which is not yet dead and buried - he will not become a part-time Wolf in the all-year-round rugby operation that some, like the former Warrington and now Sale chief executive, Peter Deakin, would like to see. "Even if there's a merger, I've vowed that I won't play for any other rugby league team."

A vow is a serious matter to a devout man like Perelini, even one who, by his own admission, was wild as a young man. Likewise his promise to himself at Old Trafford. Saturday night's will be his last memories of rugby league; win or lose, he will make them good ones.

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