Risk of dancing with Wolves pays off for Stefan Ratchford
Back's gamble of leaving Salford has worked as he's set to play in tomorrow's Grand Final
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Friday 05 October 2012
It is because of days like tomorrow that Stefan Ratchford had to move to a big club last winter.
The versatile back, who plays for Warrington against Leeds in the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford, had to choose between remaining the kingpin at Salford – and probably the highest-paid player in the Devils' history – and backing his own ability on a bigger stage.
"The reason I came here was to play in finals," he says. "But to play in the Cup final at Wembley and now in the Grand Final – that puts me ahead of schedule."
Ratchford knew that he did not have a ready-made position at the Wolves. In fact, it wasn't obvious where he would fit into a squad which had been the strongest and deepest in Super League in 2011. "The way I looked at it was that there were players here that I could only learn from by playing alongside," he says. "But first you've got to get into the 17."
From the start of the season, Ratchford took his chances where he found them. He played a bit of full-back, both half-backs, a bit of hooker and spent time on the bench.
It is at centre, however, that he has carved his niche in the second half of the season. That would have seemed unlikely a few months ago, because the Wolves looked well served in that position, with two internationals, Chris Bridge and Ryan Atkins, in occupation.
Ratchford took advantage of Bridge's injury to stake his claim and has played too well to be shifted. Not that there is much convention about the way he goes about the job. There is a welcome dash of the unorthodox about him that has added an extra dimension to Warrington's attack. The play-off game against Hull was a case in point. The Wolves were battering at the try-line, but could not break through to clinch the match until Ratchford conjured up a cunning little kick that bounced off the post padding and back into his arms.
"He's been coming up with plays like that for a number of weeks," said his coach, Tony Smith. "He's got that X-factor that wins matches."
For his part, Ratchford says that it is the way Smith has encouraged him to play. "You don't wait for the ball to come to you," he says. "You go looking for it."
And then you do something with it. Ratchford says he has practised that ricochet ploy in training with the likes of that old trickster, Lee Briers. Trying it and making it work in a big match is something else entirely.
With his distinctive haircut and his rather gangling physique, Ratchford looks more like a 1970s footballer than a 21st-century rugby league player. Along with the prop forward Chris Hill though, he has been the infusion of new blood that Warrington needed this year. In the intimate world of rugby league, it has not been a first meeting for the two, but a reunion.
They played together as young amateurs at Wigan St Patricks and their mothers work together as nurses at a local hospital. One difference, however, is that while Hill has forced himself into the England squad for the end-of-season internationals, Ratchford has not.
He accepts that, given the competition, he might have to wait for a regular place at that level. Games like tomorrow's at Old Trafford can only advance his cause. Ratchford will be up against a current England incumbent in Carl Ablett, one of the most naturally strong and physical specialists in the position. "He's a big unit, but I'm looking forward to it," Ratchford says.
He still lives in his home-town of Wigan, with all the banter that involves. "They like to give me a bit of stick about playing for Warrington," he says. "But rugby league people are pretty good. There's no malice in it. They often want you to do well because you come from the town."
In Wigan, Warrington and even Salford, they should be delighted with Stefan Ratchford's progress this season. Not because of who he plays for, but because of the flashes of unpredictability with which he can light up a game and make it more watchable and less regimented than it would otherwise be.
That move down the M62 to Warrington has ensured that he will be able to display those qualities in front of another big audience.
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