Rugby League: The boy wonder of Wigan: Ian Ridley watches a young rugby league player display qualities beyond his years

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THE playing fields at Boardmans Lane in St Helens are awash with the mud and occasional blood of junior rugby league. A gale is penetrating Lancashire from the Irish Sea, driving rain into ruddy faces and numbed hands. What was that about breeding them tough in these parts?

'Get him banged,' shouts a parent from the touchline as a tackle is missed. A 10-year-old writhes, clutching a knee, in front of his own posts and thus interrupting the march of the other team, whose coach protests: 'Get him up, ref. He only went down when his coach told him to.' In the car park, another youth, right arm in a primitive sling, waits for an ambulance.

Nursery does not seem the appropriate word; this, though, is the breeding ground that has delivered the youngest player ever to sign for a professional club. Wigan have captured - at the age of 12 - Daryl Lacey from the Blackbrook Royals club for an amount no one is willing to discuss. Indeed, the signing has become a sensitive issue in the sport. The Rugby League expresses 'concern' at the ethical and moral implications of professional involvement at such an age and adds that it will monitor the situation and may consider regulations lest this 'unique' occurrence become commonplace. Wigan have been surprised, embarrassed even, by the reaction and the boy's mother Rita claims that they have asked her not to talk about the arrangement.

Lacey, a loose forward, was spotted by Wigan's scout in St Helens, John Jackson, who referred him to his superior at the club, Derek Standish. He was immediately impressed. 'I saw him play for his town team against Warrington and he was first there, four tackles out of six,' says Standish.

'Twelve does seem young but the talent is unbelievable. He has everything - work-rate, thinking, reading of the game, commitment. He is very skilful, has pace and a good defence. What more can you ask for from a rugby league player?'

Standish recommended that Wigan move quickly. 'Others were closing in on him. St Helens had talked to him for two and a half hours but the lad was a Wigan follower.' It is an irony that Rita's General Store is in Knowsley Road, immediately opposite the Saints' ground.

Estimates place the deal as being worth between pounds 2,000 and pounds 4,000 a year to the family until the boy is eligible to become a full professional on his 17th birthday. Mrs Lacey, whose husband John died of a heart attack last year aged 43, will say only that the latter figure is not accurate.

She has given one interview, however, to her local St Helens Reporter, in which she said: 'I have taken a lot of undue criticism for allowing Daryl to sign at 12 but in my heart of hearts I know John would have done the same thing . . . Hopefully Daryl's future will be secured and he will be doing something he loves.'

'There is nothing in our rules to say this can't be done but there is some concern that a player so young can be snapped up at what is a ridiculous age,' said the Rugby League's new public affairs executive, Harry Gration. 'Wigan are a reputable club, though, and the lad can only play in junior amateur football anyway. I am sure they will look after him. Yes, I suppose it could open the floodgates but this is not a seedy sport, this is a very well organised professional game. It is fair to say that we will be monitoring it and, if necessary, looking at new rules.'

Those in football say that players can be signed as associate schoolboys at 14 and apprentice professionals at 16. Standish believes that such an early association will, rather, aid the player's development. 'He will still be playing with his club but every so often coming to Wigan and training, seeing how international players go about it. Getting him early should mean he won't get into any bad habits.' He will also have access to Wigan's medical facilities.

There is, of course, no way of knowing how a teenager will develop educationally, emotionally and physically, but it is clear that Wigan feel any investment to be worth the risk. Recently, for example, Standish said, Lacey scored five tries for St Helens' town team against Oldham to bring them from 20 points down to a 28-28 draw.

Meanwhile, he is playing for Blackbrook in a Lancashire Cup quarter-final against Leigh East. You wonder what all the fuss is about as you see a lean figure, at about 5ft 8in by no means the biggest on the pitch, standing shivering and blowing on to frozen hands.

Then the match kicks off and he comes alive. You realise that, unlike many without the foresight, he has been keeping his hands warm ready to receive the ball. There is the look of a young Shaun Edwards about him as he displays some fleet- footed running and astonishingly brave tackling - twice requiring treatment - notably against Leigh's biggest and best player, Craig Winfield.

He is indeed upstaged by the powerful Winfield, who scores 19 of his team's points in the 23-14 win, but the moment of the match comes when Lacey goes 70 yards for a try, the last 10 with Winfield on his back. The reason for Standish's enthusiasm becomes apparent.

All the parties involved are concerned about the effects of the glare of publicity that has caught them rabbit-like. 'I was hoping all this was dying down,' said the Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson, when contacted last week. Does not the mere signing, though, make the boy more of a target in matches?

Standish has faith in him, his character and the raw potential that hints at the highest class. 'He was a target before the signing because he is so good,' he said. 'But he will carry all this. He will ride it. He's so laid back.' After all, they do breed them tough in these parts.

(Photograph omitted)