Rugby League / Regal Trophy Final: Powell finds a new dimension: A workhorse has acquired the look of a thoroughbred. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN Bradford Northern paid Leeds pounds 80,000 for Roy Powell last February, most people in rugby league thought they knew what the club would get for its hard- earned money.

A non-stop worker, a tireless tackler and a runner who would take the ball into the heart of the defence all day: that was Roy Powell.

But the Regal Trophy final, against Wigan at Elland Road tomorrow, could well show that there is more to him than the invaluable but unglamorous hard labour for which he is renowned. In rather less than a year at Bradford, Powell, now aged 27, has blossomed into the complete forward he always thought he could be.

'At Leeds, I was always regarded as the workhorse,' he says. 'The Leeds players seemed to think so, and if you've always done it, they let you carry on doing it.

'The difference at Bradford is that everyone works for each other and that frees you.'

Freedom came to Powell at just the right time. 'One of the problems at Leeds was that in the nine years I spent there I had seven or eight different coaches. Every time a new one came, I had to prove myself again.'

Eighteen months ago, a coach arrived who had radical plans for restructuring the Leeds pack and Powell played no role in those plans.

'Doug Laughton made it quite clear to me that I wasn't wanted - although I was never told why. When Bradford came for me, I knew it was the right move.'

The Bradford and former Leeds coach, Peter Fox, was one previous boss who had never been guilty of under-rating Powell. He had picked him for Yorkshire at every opportunity and had twice tried to sign him for Featherstone Rovers.

Powell went to Odsal with a specific immediate role sketched out for him - to stiffen the defence and help Northern to avoid relegation. He was able to do that, but, being Cup-tied, could only sit and squirm in the stand at Burnden Park when Wigan thrashed them 71-10 in last season's Challenge Cup semi-final.

Tomorrow is their first meeting in a knock-out competition since that debacle, and Powell believes there is a fine line to be walked in striking the right attitude towards those dark memories. He said: 'You can use a result like that to psyche yourself up before the match - not just the lads who played but everyone at the club. But when you get out on to the field you have to put it out of your mind.'

Powell's spreading of his wings since the traumas of last season is one major factor in making Bradford a very different proposition tomorrow. When they play as they can do, as, for instance, in a memorable victory over St Helens in November, he is often the link that keeps the ball alive as Bradford wear down the opposition with their alert support play.

Where cynics used to talk dismissively of Powell's 'pass of the day' he is now a player who can send team-mates in for tries with some surprisingly clever use of the ball. Those same critics used to await Powell's 'try of the season'; this campaign has seen him running clear of defences to score with increasing regularity.

Apart from the willingness of other forwards to do the hard slog, which at Leeds was too often regarded as his birthright, Powell says that the major bonus for him at Bradford has been the opportunity to play again alongside Deryck Fox, the scrum-half who comes closest to being every forward's dream.

'It's like having the old team together again,' he says. 'We played together for three seasons as young amateurs with St John Fisher in Dewsbury and we know each other's play inside out.

'It can be a problem for some players when they first play with Deryck, because the power of his passing can take you by surprise. The other thing about him is that he's such a good organiser. Half the problem when Bradford have played badly this season has been that players have thought they didn't have to think, because Deryck does all the thinking for them.'

Despite his 19 Great Britain caps, Powell has been criticised for not being nasty enough on the field to excel at the top level. Perhaps what observers have noted the lack of is any histrionic aggression. His reasoning is that a coolly executed, and perfectly legal, shoulder to the ribs or midriff is actually more hurtful than most of the flailing around the head area to which tacklers with inferior technique resort.

The Roy Powell who plays at Elland Road will be familiar in that regard to anyone who has watched him over the last decade. It is when he sets off on a 20-yard dash for the try-line or lays off a one-handed pass for a man in support that Wigan might wonder whether the workhorse has turned into a thoroughbred.

(Photograph omitted)