Rugby League: Hooker Walters making the most of `grandfather' role

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The Independent Online
The Walters brothers have been a major part of Australian sides in recent years.

Dave Hadfield meets the elder statesman who is unexpectedly extending that era in the Test series against Great Britain.

In the annals of the game's fluctuating fortunes, Steve Walters has just pulled off the greatest comeback since Lazarus. That is the biblical Lazarus, not Walters' former Canberra and Australia team-mate, Glen Lazarus, and to rise from reserve grade for the bottom team in the competition to hook once more for his country does almost amount to returning from the dead.

At 32, Walters is, along with the equally venerable Andrew Ettingshausen, the grandfather of a young and largely inexperienced Australian squad.

It was hardly a role he could have expected to play after his season back home. After 11 successful years at Canberra, Walters moved to the North Queensland Cowboys. Far from making the anticipated rapid improvement under the former Canberra coach, Tim Sheens, the Cowboys finished last.

Walters' own form was ordinary enough for Sheens to threaten him with a stint in the reserves and, at the end of the season, after uncharacteristically missing a training session, he suffered that indignity.

"I did find it harder than I expected being at a new club," he said. "I'd probably been spoiled all those years at Canberra."

Not surprisingly, the Australian selectors were hardly battering his door down, leaving him out of both internationals earlier this year. With young hookers such as Craig Gower and Luke Priddis - both on this trip - coming through strongly it seemed that Walters' distinguished Test career was over.

After defeat by New Zealand the value of experienced players such as Walters and Ettingshausen - who also missed that match - was underlined. When the tour party for England was named, the current reserve grade hooker from the lowest placed side in Australian Super League was in it.

"I couldn't expect to be here after the up and down sort of year I'd had," Walters said. "I was just happy to be picked, but now that I'm back in the Test team, I want to do enough to stay there."

He certainly made an impressive hand of that last Saturday, tormenting Great Britain in the first Test with his trademark darting runs from dummy half, making crucial tackles and setting up a try with an audacious piece of improvisation from a short kick-off.

"It was one of my better internationals," he said. "Quite a few things worked out right for me, although I've been looking at the video now and there are a couple of areas where I did the wrong thing and I can improve."

That is bad news for Great Britain, who have been struggling against the Walters clan for as long as they can remember. Apart from Steve, twin brothers Kerrod and Kevin, two years younger, have played for Australia, the three of them establishing a unique record by all touring in 1994.

Now, against all the odds, the elder brother has outlasted his siblings at international level. "Although I am pretty certain that Kevin would have made the tour if he'd been available, because he's such a talented player and he covers so many positions."

Kevin, usually a stand-off with the Brisbane Broncos, dropped out because his wife is ill or he might have been the Walters wearing the hooker's jersey. Instead, Steve is left to uphold the family honour - the second Test is at Old Trafford on Saturday - and all the signs are that there is still more than enough life left in him to do so.

"I felt a bit rusty in the first few minutes at Wembley, probably because I haven't played for seven weeks," he said, but his performance delighted his coach, John Lang.

Lang, an accomplished Test hooker himself in his playing days, has a soft spot for other practitioners of the art. "Steve Walters showed that he is still right up there," he said after Australia's comprehensive victory. "It gave me a bit of a buzz to see him play so well, because I regard him as one of our all-time great hookers."

Walters is wary of the competition from inside and outside the Australian squad. "Craig Gower prefers hooker to half-back and he's got 13 years on me," he said thoughtfully. "Then there's Luke Priddis, who was my deputy at Canberra. He probably had some effect on them letting me go."

Walters has also faced the challenge from British hookers from Martin Dermott onwards. "I haven't played against James Lowes before, but he's probably closest to my style. No, he's probably got a bit more skill with the ball than me. I tend to just see a gap and run."

He makes that sound simple, but even in the twilight of his career nobody does it better.

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