Rugby: Apollo Perelini - the saintly hard man

Dave Hadfield on the prop whose power is rooted in a placid nature
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The Independent Online
For all the sparkling work of their back line during the last, startlingly successful 12 months, it could be argued that St Helens' greatest strength has been a prop forward who believes in turning the other cheek, and who was named after a rocket.

Apollo Perelini was so called after an American moon-shot when he was born in Western Samoa 27 years ago. "It's quite normal for children in Samoa to be called after significant events," he says. He could, he jokes, have been christened Sputnik, if the Russians had got there first.

Perelini, who plays for Saints in Saturday's Challenge Cup final against Bradford, would be a remarkable rugby league player by any name. A rare blend of explosive power and equable temperament, it is as hard to anger him as it is to stop his 16st 7lb frame.

For that, Perelini credits his faith. There are few more staunchly religious peoples in the world than Samoans and he is most definitely of the muscular Christian persuasion.

"It's the most important part of my life," he says. "It's what gets me through every day. One of the big things for me in coming to England was to find a church where I could feel settled and at home. I go to a church in St Helens - the Christian Life Centre - and it's like a family for me.

"It keeps my life in order by showing me how you can take the principles in the Bible and apply them to the world."

Can't that be a bit difficult when some heathen from, say, Bradford puts in the knees in the first tackle and belts you around the head in the first scrum?

"It's hard to turn the other cheek, but it's the bigger man who does. My faith helps me to have more of a calm mind, instead of getting into a rage.

"There's nothing wrong with being an aggressive player. You can play it as hard as anyone else but within the rules. After all, many of God's greatest men have been warriors. Christians aren't wimps."

No one who has faced him in the rugby arena would dream of suggesting that they were. But, like his fellow-Samoan, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Perelini does seem to make a genuine effort to play the game with scrupulous fairness.

Of the two, Perelini wears his faith a little more lightly; he blesses you less often during interviews. In truth, while they were sorry to lose a great centre, there were some Wigan players who had already had enough of Tuigamala's dressing-room evangelism before he converted back to union with Newcastle.

But both men are good advertisements on the field for the ethical standards by which they aspire to live their lives, just as both are impressive evidence of the muscle-building properties of taro. The ubiquitous Polynesian root-crop can be hard to find in Britain, but Perelini and some fellow- countrymen regularly send to London for supplies.

As well as the food and the faith, the Perelini family keep the language alive, speaking Samoan at home, even though Apollo left the islands for Auckland as a three-year-old.

It was there he made his name as a union player, initially in club rugby and then with the Western Samoa side which, amongst other triumphs, beat Wales in Cardiff.

Perelini was an eye-catching wing-forward, who had become aware of the attractions of rugby league via the screening of Winfield Cup games in New Zealand. St Helens had become aware of him and, when their offer came, he was receptive.

Saints played him at the back of the scrum in just one game, against the 1994 Australians, before deciding to try him at prop. Although he had never played the position in union, he has become the state of the art in that role in his adopted code.

Unlike props of the old school, Perelini works regularly on his pace, which is exceptional for a man of his bulk. There are few St Helens matches which do not feature the stirring sight of him surging downfield, opponents trailing in his wake.

An automatic choice in anybody's team of the season last year, he is now the yardstick by which front-rowers in Britain are measured.

"When you get a reputation, everyone tries to pull you down," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that. It keeps me on my toes; keeps me honest."

Perelini's honesty is surely beyond reproach, as is his commitment to Saints' cause. For several weeks, he has been playing with a painful neck injury, which will certainly need rest - and possibly surgery - before it can be cured.

He accepts damage like that as part of the job - a job he intends to do for St Helens for another four years. Unlike Tuigamala, he does not hanker for a lucrative return to rugby union, except as a social player when he is well into his thirties.

"Perhaps when Saints have had enough of me and my body has had enough of league. There's no doubt that league's a lot tougher."

He expects the Cup final to reflect that fact. Last year's might have been a showpiece, but Perelini says that this one will be physically more demanding.

It also brings him face to face with the prop who, thanks to Bradford's semi-final, is currently the most notorious in the game. Brian McDermott was sent of for thumping three Leeds opponents in that match - not much turning of the cheek there - but Perelini has always found him an honourable adversary.

"I respect him and I have nothing against him," he says. "Every time I've played against him, he has just gone out there and done his job. Everyone knows his background (McDermott is an ex-Marine and former professional boxer) and he doesn't have to prove how tough he is."

The same could be said of Perelini. A man of unfailing modesty, he still knows that he is regarded as the best in the business. He does not have to bang heads together in order to justify that assessment, just to play the way that he has, with his faith and his quiet pride, for the past couple of years. On the side of the Saints, they will happily settle for that.

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