Rugby League: A giant fears the final cut: Dave Hadfield meets a mighty Saint laid low by a chapter of accidents

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The Independent Online
NEXT Friday, Kevin Ward is due to undergo what he believes is his seventh operation since a supposedly routine fracture to his leg last Good Friday. It would be heartening if this were to signal the start of a genuine recovery, but Ward concedes the surgery will probably remove the lingering hope that he might play rugby league again.

As a player, this giant prop forward never did anything by halves. The head-on ferocity of his running with the ball made him one of the few men who, in a deeply partisan sport, attracted the admiration and affection of opposing fans; his postbag since Easter attests to that.

Ward had never broken a leg before, only an ankle, but he knew all about the implications when, 10 minutes from time in a local derby at Central Park, Wigan, he was tackled, and then twisted on his right leg as his studs gripped the mud when he went down. 'I felt a crack, but I don't honestly know whether it was the tackle or the twisting that did it. They were able to tell me pretty quickly that it was a double compound fracture and I thought, 'Ah well, that's eight weeks for the small bone and 12 weeks for the main one.' '

That prognosis he gave himself was the last straightforward or optimistic one he was to receive and, eight months later, he is still waiting, with increasingly ill-disguised impatience, for any sign that the leg is mending.

Ward's medical history since Good Friday is a chronicle of disasters, from a 10-hour wait at the local infirmary before he could be treated, to a plaster cast that became too tight and threatened him with the loss of the limb, to the infection that has set in around the pin that is holding the bone together.

'I can't even get around to cleaning the windows, because if I stand on the leg for 10 minutes it blows up and sweats like hell. The pain can be unbelievable.'

Ward has regarded pain as part of the job - some of his greatest performances have come when he has not really been fit to play - but he admits that 'it's a hell of a thing when you wake up in the morning with something like that'.

Any thought of working at his other job as a builder has had to be set aside indefinitely. 'I can hardly go up and down ladders like this,' he says. Going into the demolition business seems to be nearer the front of his mind; there have been times when he has slammed his fist into the walls of his house in Wakefield in sheer rage.

Ward has kept in touch with his club, St Helens, sometimes attempting to train, usually going to their matches. Last Friday, when Saints played Halifax, he was in one of his darker moods. He had combined that trip to Knowsley Road with meeting the club's directors to talk about his plight. 'They talked about giving me a testimonial match. But that's one game - it wouldn't begin to compensate me for what I've lost or what I've been through,' he said.

Ward's insurance payments ended after six months, and he says: 'Everyone thinks the club have been very generous giving me a contract for this season. I'm grateful for that, but it doesn't pay the mortgage.

'Realistically, I'm looking at maybe two years between the injury and getting back again. I'm getting no younger and it's also a case of whether I dare play again. I don't want the same thing to happen and to go through hell again - because that's what it's been so far.'

Age is certainly against Ward. He is now 36, which is getting on a bit, even for a fiercely fit man in a position that can encourage longevity. But part of his frustration is knowing that, before Good Friday, he was playing as well as ever, hammering into defences with all his old vigour and proving a weekly inspiration for Saints, the club he joined from Castleford when he was already supposedly over the hill.

Ward combined refined ball-skills with brute power, and perhaps his greatest achievement was to convince sceptical Australians that there was more to British forward play than bald heads and beer bellies. Not only did he give their national side more trouble than any prop for the past 20 years, he also had a memorable season with the Sydney club Manly, leading them to their Grand Final victory in 1987.

'They took us from the ground to Manly's club in stretch limousines and passed us overhead from hand to hand to get us inside,' he recalls, brightening suddenly.

'The Castleford chairman managed to get through on the phone to tell me I was booked on the plane the next morning so that I could play against Featherstone on the Wednesday. Sums it up really.'

Meanwhile, in the players' bar at St Helens, where there was a host of people offering encouraging words, Ward studied his big, battered right fist. 'I can't remember some of the times I've thumped the walls at home. My wife's told me about it. And the walls are still upright. I must be losing the strength in my arms as well.'

(Photograph omitted)