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Rugby League: Russell is hooked by hooking

WIGAN will today encounter an old boy in one of the few roles they never asked him to fill, writes Dave Hadfield.

Richard Russell was a classic case of a player whose career prospects were damaged by his own versatility. He saw himself as a stand-off or centre; Wigan saw him as a utility player who could slot in anywhere.

At 19 he played on the wing in one of the club's finest hours, the victory over Manly in the first World Club Challenge in 1987, but he also figured as far away as second-row. 'The only positions they never played me were prop and hooker,' he recalls.

Russell knew what hookers got up to and did not like the sounds of it. His journeys to and from Wigan with another Oldham-based player had filled in the gory details. 'I used to travel with Nicky Kiss and he had loads of stories about what went on with hookers,' Russell said. 'I remember thinking, thank God I won't have to play there.'

But if Kiss was one of the last and most colourful of the old school of ball-winning, blood and guts hookers, Russell is an example of the way the job has evolved.

Now that the scrum is rare, hooking for the ball is an irrelevance, a forgotten art. The emphasis is on a No 9's slickness from acting half-back, where he picks up the heeled ball perhaps 200 times in a match. 'It's all about getting the best and quickest pass away,' Russell said. 'Although, especially with the 10-metre rule at the play-the- ball, I can have a dart with the ball whenever I see a gap.'

It was his hometown club, Oldham, who first spotted his potential for the job. Russell had gone there as a loose forward, but Tony Barrow told him he was thinking of playing him at hooker. Kiss's lurid stories crossed his mind, but he agreed to give it a try.

It was a decision that was to reshape his career. Last summer, the new Castleford coach, John Joyner, made him his first signing, specifically to fill that gap.

Since then, he has looked suspiciously like the missing piece in the Castleford jigsaw. The quality of the ball from acting half-back is as important in rugby league as the serve in tennis. Get that wrong and there is no opportunity to get anything else right.

Russell believes that his experience of playing all over the pitch has finally proved useful and it is handy to have an operator who has learned to pass like a scrum-half and run like a back-row forward.

Trans-Pennine transfers are notoriously fragile propositions, the travel on winter nights frequently wearing down the best of intentions. But Castleford have what amounts to a branch office in Oldham, so that Russell ventures forth with Tony Morrison and another former Wigan player, Mike Ford.

'It would be different travelling over on my own,' he said. 'But we just take the mickey out of each other and the time soon passes.'

Russell could even regale them with a few gruesome hooker's tales from the Nicky Kiss Motorway Storybook, but he might be more inclined to tell them that it is not a bad job after all.

(Photograph omitted)