Rugby Union: How Crooks went straight: Stephen Brenkley meets the giant threat to Wigan's hold on rugby league's big prize

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MATURITY took its time getting acquainted with Lee Crooks. He was a teenage star, a goal-kicking prop forward of enviably rich natural ability and a jack the lad who liked to sample a pint or seven, if only to ensure the preceding six really tasted that good.

The trouble is that the latter way of life tends to diminish the quality of the former. When he should have been reaching the peak of his career, young Crooks, an international at 19, was on a fairly fast track towards ending it. Another story beckoned of greatness tossed away.

'I'm proud of what I've done over the past four years,' Crooks said last week. 'It's been hard work but I'm in better condition now than I've probably ever been. I watch myself and how I go on, I like being fit, and I feel good about myself.'

He is 31 this year and playing as well, and possibly better, than at any period of a life in big-time rugby league which began at 17. The flair and the vision are still there, enhanced now by consistency of thought and action. This is thanks to his new pal, maturity.

It has helped to earn a buoyant Castleford side, which he captains, a place in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup semi-finals this Saturday, an opportunity not only of reaching Wembley but of at last breaking Wigan's hold on the trophy. It is seven years since the Lancashire club lost a Challenge Cup tie when they were beaten by Oldham in the first round. The team that beat them before that were Castleford in 1986.

But for six stupendous seasons, Wigan have reached Wembley and won, sometimes at a canter, invariably raising their game when it seems to matter most. But Castleford have already beaten them twice this season - 46-0 in the league, 33-2 in the final of the Regal Trophy. Surely the hat- trick is not beyond them.

'There's no doubt at all we're well capable of winning it,' Crooks said. 'We've got the players, we've got the form, and we've shown we can beat them. It's the best Cas side I've played in, but I'm not getting carried away.'

Crooks went to Cas in 1990, probably his last chance of staying in the game. He had started auspiciously with Hull as wonder boy, but that team were in decline when he was transferred to Leeds for pounds 150,000 in 1986, then the British record fee. The move bordered on disastrous and Crooks is engagingly frank about why that might have been.

'I was naive, I suppose,' he said. 'Things were going badly for me off the field. My marriage was breaking up, I did some stupid things. I let the past rule my life. I was a fairly bitter person.'

Bitter threatened to become all-embracing. If it wasn't his mood, it was what he poured in excessive quantities down his throat. 'I maybe drank too much, maybe didn't look after myself properly. I might get plastered in midweek. I don't think I gave the Leeds fans their money's worth. If Castleford wasn't my last chance there are only so many second chances you can have and I know that.'

The final credit for his renaissance must go down to his own recognition of his shortcomings and his determination to rectify them. But he pays eager tribute to Karen, his girlfriend who will become his second wife in July. She is the sister of the former Great Britain loose forward Steve Norton - a team-mate of Crooks's at Hull - and understands the game and its players. The results of what he called his two daft years are still with him off the field; he and Karen and their two children live in a Castleford council house.

'I know it seems stupid that a rugby international does not have his own house,' he said, 'but a lot of money got spent. Castleford people, fortunately, are down to earth. It hasn't mattered to them. After the wedding, we're hoping to buy our own place. Things are coming together.'

Not that the affable Crooks has become priestly in his dedication. He still likes a pint on a Sunday after a game, and may take one on a Monday, but observes the rest of the week strictly.

The Crooks legend began early. Picked for Great Britain a month after his 19th birthday, he kicked two goals in his first international, their only points in the seminal 40-4 drubbing by Australia in 1982. After his third, against France, he was suspended. The RL yearbook explains that this was for over- exuberance on the trip home.

'That's probably about it,' he explained. 'I got to drinking this red wine and probably wasn't used to what it could do. Anyway, when I've had a bit too much to drink I have a bit of an unfortunate tendency to swear a bit more than I should do.'

By any lights he is an extraordinary kind of player, a ball player who is adventurous, powerful and can turn a match in an instant. A prop forward's body (at 6ft 1in and 16st 5lb) beneath a scrum half's head was how he put it. This enduring combination gives him realistic hope of adding to the 18 international caps he has won in 12 years, perhaps as quickly as the week after next when Britain play France.

He has several ambitions remaining: to get more caps, to win the Championship with Cas, to play in the top flight till he's 35, to coach, to buy that house. First, however, the unlikeliest wise old pro of them all wants to beat Wigan.

(Photograph omitted)