Westwood can kick-start Wolves' final ambitions

Warrington's answer to Jonny Wilkinson may be a recent convert to the kicker's art but is relishing the responsibility, he tells Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online

For a man who claims to have had weeks of sleepless nights before his first Wembley final last year, Ben Westwood is taking his extra responsibilities this time in his stride.

The Warrington second-rower, who lines up against Leeds in the Challenge Cup final today, is now expected not only to contribute his usual all-action 80 minutes, but to kick the goals for the Wolves as well.

It's a situation that came about almost by accident. Westwood, who had not kicked a goal since his days in the Academy side at Wakefield, was fourth-choice kicker at best. "Then one match [last month against Castleford] there were a couple out injured and Lee Briers said he didn't fancy it, so I said I'd have a go," he says. "I kicked nine from nine and I've been doing it ever since. I enjoy the extra responsibility."

Westwood has a deceptively casual attitude to this new string to his bow, plonking the ball down and turning his back on it, before striking a pose vaguely reminiscent of a renowned kicker in another code. "But I think Jonny Wilkinson does it for balance," he says. "I do it because I don't know what to do with my hands."

There is more to Westwood than this unexpected knack of putting the ball over the crossbar. In the past two years, he has gone from the sort of player valued by his team-mates to one recognised throughout the game as one of the best in his position. "It's good to be mentioned for awards like the Man of Steel," he says. "If it happens, it happens."

One of Warrington's other candidates for Super League's leading individual award, their captain, Adrian Morley, says Westwood would not look out of place as a winner. "He's been playing great for a good few years now," Morley says. "We've always known how talented he was, but now everybody else knows too."

There is little doubt that Westwood's number one fan is his coach, Tony Smith. In fact, he seems mildly embarrassed at the extent of the praise that routinely comes his way. "My mum usually phones me and tells me what Tony's said," he says. "I like to keep him happy and it's nice to feel appreciated."

What coaches appreciate about Westwood is the sheer intensity of his appetite for the game. "Mind you, he's got the odd mistake in him," says Smith. "He made a couple in the last game, but he puts himself in the match so much it's bound to happen.

"I had the pleasure of coaching Jason Smith and he was a pretty special player, but he made more mistakes than anyone in the team. That was because he was in the game more than anyone else and it's a bit the same with Ben.

"We've got three players here I'd be very happy with as Man of Steel – Adrian Morley, Michael Monaghan and Ben Westwood. They've all shown that sort of consistency."

Although he has played second-row and even prop at Warrington, Westwood started his professional career as a centre at Wakefield. "I wasn't really quick enough or skilful enough and I always liked mixing it with the big lads, so I was always going to finish up in the pack. One week I was on the wing, the next I was in the front row."

Brought up in Normanton, Westwood was a boyhood Castleford fan and has always secretly fancied playing for them, "perhaps when I'm 38. But what it means is that I didn't like Leeds very much."

Maybe not, but that doesn't imply any lack of respect now. "They're a great team and they've done everything except winning the Challenge Cup, whereas we know what it's like to go to Wembley and do that. Last year, I was so nervous that I hardly slept after the semi-final; this year, we know much more what to expect."

Warrington are also stronger on paper for the addition of David Solomona and Ryan Atkins – who would be Westwood's own intriguing choice as Man of Steel, if he was allowed to vote for a team-mate – since last year's victory over Huddersfield. Equally significant is the way that an established player like Westwood has grown in stature, as an international second-rower and match-winning goal-kicker.

And, if he has any sleepless nights now, they are all attributable not to nerves but to his two-week-old daughter, Gracie.