Rugby Union: An exile back on home ground: Owen Slot meets Steve Pilgrim on the eve of his comeback for Wasps

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The Independent Online
THEY will be back at Wasps on Saturday, but for Steve Pilgrim the close season has been longer than most: 19 months makes a lengthy summer holiday. Officially, he has been serving a ban from rugby union, incurred for chancing his hand at the professional code, but Pilgrim sees it as a year off and would recommend it to anybody. Time to relax, time to repair his injuries, and time, of course, to prepare for that return to club rugby.

When Saturday comes, and Wasps play Instonians, the monkey will finally be off his back, no longer the outcast. And his sentence was served without making a shilling from the professional game.

Pilgrim was not wooed to league and he went north with no certainty of success. Despite having England B honours at full-back, 'shamateurism' had passed him by; the most he ever got from Wasps was a job cleaning cars. In January 1993, financial despair led him to ring Leeds and ask for a trial. 'I remember the day I did it: I was doing just another building job, more miserable work for miserable money. That night I was on the phone.'

The gamble failed. His trial game, a reserves match against Wakefield Trinity, is remembered not for the try he scored and the three goals he kicked, but for the fact that a local reporter recognised him as more than the A N Other on the team sheet. Eight hours later, the rugby union authorities had been informed and a one-year ban was meted out. His only option was league, but five trials later, not a single cheque-book had been waved in his direction and he moved back south, deeply unhappy. For two months he took out his aggression on a punch-bag ('a number of faces appeared on it') and in taking up taekwondo (he broke a finger). Gradually he shook out the bitterness.

Solicitors rang him, pleading him to fight the cause in court, but he declined to be a standard-bearer. 'I know people who have made money from the game and I'd have had to indict them. But actually, that wasn't the reason at all.' It was what the self-assessment during his early months in the wilderness had thrown up. 'I re-

established why I'm playing and got back to the reason why I started: not what I could get out of the game or where the next free pair of boots is coming from, but simply because I love playing.'

His priority, he ascertained, was purely to play again, first for Wasps, then for his home team, the Old Reigatians. 'And finally,' he says, 'I started to enjoy myself.' In came a new social life, out went an old arrogance. And to keep him sane, he invented a game - with an American football on a soccer pitch - which he could partake in without having his schoolfriends incriminated for playing rugby with a banned man.

In such a frame of mind, Pilgrim could look forward to his comeback, rather than back. The hardest part he tackled first: 18 September 1993, the day he decided to show up at Wasps again. For seven-and-a- half months he had been away from the game, had barely had a call from Wasps' players or management, and he arrived to watch a First Division match against Harlequins. 'I was very nervous, and didn't have a clue how people would react. But when I drove in, the guy on the gate saw me and said: 'I'm not charging you. Go and park up there with the players.' And that did it, it put me at ease straight away. Everyone made an effort - Rob Andrew came up and said 'Are you allowed in here?' with a huge grin on his face - and as I received more positive comments, I realised it was more me feeling out of place than them.'

Socially, he had established, there would be no problems; physically, he knew there would be none. Pilgrim had a key to the Old Reigatians training facilities and had been training six nights a week - on his own in order not to 'professionalise' any team-mates. On 29 March, the day his ban was completed, he would return to the game in better shape than he had left it . . . had he not torn his ankle ligaments four days previously.

Which takes us to 28 July, on tour with London in Zimbabwe, when he finally did play the game again, against the national B-side. Sleepless the night before, he postponed his elation until 10 minutes into the game. 'That was when I knew I could do it again. A high ball went up, I caught that, then put a kick into touch, and then came into the line and put a winger away for a try. All that in 10 minutes. That thrilled me, I was a giggling child all night.'

Which explains why Saturday will be a last, easy step on the journey home. The confidence is there, as is the rediscovered joy for the game. 'I hope Wasps supporters will see a new side of me,' Pilgrim says. Give him one early high ball and they will.