Rugby League: Butt breaks new ground with an air of distinction

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The Independent Online
Ikram Butt, the one prominent Asian player British rugby league has so far produced, knew he had won acceptance when the nature of the name-calling changed.

"I still get abuse, but it's not usually racial abuse any more," he says. "Now I've played more and gained some respect, they tend to just call me a donkey, or something like that.''

Progress indeed, but it is progress that has been hard-earned by the 26-year-old Featherstone Rovers winger, who last week became the first Asian to win an international cap when he played for England against Wales in Cardiff.

Born in Leeds of Pakistani parents, he had a short career alongside his brother, Tony, a forward who briefly got as far as the first team, with his hometown club.

The turning point, however, was being taken to Featherstone by the club's then coach, Peter Fox, one figure within the game who does believe that there is untapped potential within the Asian community.

Since then, Butt has hardly missed a match and his selection for England was recognition of a hard-working approach to wing-play which fits in well with the current tenor of the game.

In Cardiff, in fact, he almost seemed to be trying too hard to counteract any misconceived stereotypes. Butt admits to doubling his efforts to demonstrate that he has the toughness and resilience which many routinely and unthinkingly assume British Asians lack.

He has surely proved his point, but there is no sign yet of a stream of young Pakistanis, Indians or Bangladeshis following in his footsteps. "I think it's due to a lack of encouragement and opportunity from junior school onwards," he says. "You aren't expected to have a strong enough interest in rugby league to get very far in it.

"For the first generation who came to Britain, their interest probably was in cricket and hockey, but the game I grew up with was rugby league."

By virtue of geography, a fair proportion of Asian children go to schools where rugby league is an option. The leap that few make is from that to their local amateur sides. Unlike the West Indian poulation of West Yorkshire, there are no amateur clubs where Asians predominate.

The heartlands of the game often coincide with areas of high Asian population, but clubs often act as though the terraced streets around their grounds are foreign countries, or at least no-go areas with which they can have no constructive contact.

Batley are making some inroads, although their chairman, Stephen Ball, says they often find that children who live and go to school within a short kick of their pitch have no knowledge of the game at all.

Fox, now at Bradford Northern, is another exception to the general attitude. Unlike Butt, he is old enough to remember the days when the conventional wisdom was that players of West Indian extraction would never make much impact on the game.

It was he who first signed Ellery Hanley, and it will take several Asian Hanleys really to awaken the game as a whole to the potential of a largely untapped community.

In the meantime, Butt is the standard-bearer, and one conscious of his mould-breaking responsibilities.

Although Featherstone is one of the code's more homogenous towns, Butt has a travelling fan-club of young Asians. His hope is that his success will create more opportunities for them and others.

"The fact that an Asian player has played for England should make coaches and teachers give them more encouragement," he says.

That word encouragement is a regular theme for Butt. Although rugby league is relatively colour-blind - indeed fans on away grounds often used to assume that he was one of the game's many Maoris or Pacific Islanders - he has succeeded despite a good dealof discouragement.

The enemy, he believes, is not active hostility as much as lingering assumptions about the futility of trying to get his community involved.

There could be a lesson here from the Australian experience. Whole areas of Sydney were instinctively written off as rugby league territory following waves of immigration, especially from Vietnam. One club was even allowed to die, because its situation, amid the biggest Vietnamese concentration of all, was considered hopeless.

In junior matches in that neck of the woods now, however, there are more Ngs than Smiths playing. By the same token, there can be a lot more Butts in West Yorkshire.