Rugby League: Ward wound up for one last mission: Dave Hadfield on the recall of an old guard to Great Britain's side for the rugby league World Cup final against Australia on Saturday

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The Independent Online
IN MOST sports, recalling a 35- year-old who has not started an international for three and a half years would look a rather sad and vaguely desperate move. But Kevin Ward is not your average 35-year- old, any more than the World Cup final at Wembley next Saturday is your average rugby league match.

'Players at St Helens get such a lift from looking around the dressing room and seeing him there,' is the way his club coach, Mike McClennan, puts it. And Great Britain will need all the lift they can get when they face Australia and try to win the trophy for the first time since 1972.

It is not to denigrate Britain's efforts on tour this summer - when they won a Test in glorious style in Melbourne and could, with a little more steadiness, have taken the series - to say that the return of Ward at open-side prop adds an extra dimension to the side.

The Australian coach, Bob Fulton, knows him well. In 1987, Ward became that rarest of beasts - a British forward who went to Australia, where they are so confident of the superiority of their local product, and belted those same locals all over the pitch in the colours of Manly-Warringah, the club side Fulton then coached.

'Along with Cliff Lyons, it was Kevin who won us the Grand Final,' Fulton said. 'Although that was five years ago, it seems to me that he's as good as ever. He's kept himself very fit and he's still such a big, strong bastard.'

Strong Ward most certainly is, and singularly intimidating as well when his glare fixes upon anyone taking physical liberties. But, in the tradition of great rugby league props, he has remarkable ball skills; in particular, the ability to flick a pass out of a gang tackle to a player arriving in support.

At Wembley, it will be vital for the likely back-row of Denis Betts, Phil Clarke and Ellery Hanley to arrive at the right time to collect from Ward. But Britain has one of the best support players in the world in Shaun Edwards, and the prime responsibility for backing up Ward's breaks must fall to him.

Edwards knows all about the crucial balance between forward strength and expansive backline movement that Britain must strike to beat Australia. 'It's no use trying to just out-muscle them down the middle,' he says. 'You've got to confuse them by moving the ball about, but you have to establish the forward platform to do that.'

That is where the undiminished power and skill of Ward, who retired from international rugby in 1990, could prove invaluable. 'I know I've said it before, but this really is my swansong,' he says. 'I always wanted one more crack at the Aussies, and now it's up to me.'

Ward turned down the chance to play in Australia this summer, reasoning that he needed to rest if he was to produce his best for St Helens. There was also a feeling that, if asked in the right way, he would have come out of retirement for the tour. But the call never came and the opportunity to recharge his batteries could work strongly in Britain's favour at Wembley.

'It has worked wonders for me,' he says. 'I'm not doing anything very different, although I have stepped up my training a little bit to keep up with the younger ones.' Those younger ones - Ward is the senior member of the British squad by a clear four years - will look to him for a lead at Wembley.

In the third Test at Brisbane less than four months ago, Great Britain were overpowered by giant forwards like Glenn Lazarus, Paul Harragon and Paul Sironen. Ward savours the prospect of wearing a Great Britain international shirt for the 17th and last time. He grins broadly at the prospect of taking them on next Saturday, like a man promised the time of his life.

Australian team v Cumbria,

Sport in Short, page 25

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