Rugby Union: Pilgrim still waiting for his moment: Full-back's ban for dabbling in rugby league is over but injury delays return. Barrie Fairall reports

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The Independent Online
CALL IT Pilgrim's progress, even allowing for current frustrations. Yesterday, in theory at least, Steve Pilgrim could have picked up his rugby union career and run with the ball again without 'professionalising' his team-mates. The only problem, though, having regained his amateur status following a year's ban for taking part in a rugby league trial with Leeds, is that the full-back is injured.

All the same, welcome back in spirit if not the flesh. Now all Pilgrim is praying for is the chance to play a couple of games before the end of the season and perhaps earn selection for a summer tour of Zimbabwe with London. After a lonely year in the wilderness, surely few would wish to deny him an early opportunity of rehabilitation.

After all, Pilgrim's sin was not to take the rugby league shilling but to have the nerve, some would say cheek, to dabble with the game and be caught doing so. As an England B man and a member of next year's World Cup development squad, he was reasonably high profile and A N Other in the Leeds team sheet was not about to fool a sharp-eyed reporter from Yorkshire, who earlier last season had seen him turn out for Wasps at West Hartlepool.

'People said somebody's shopped you and that there were spiteful people about who wanted to make my life difficult,' Pilgrim recalled. 'A journalist would just be seen to be doing his job, which you can't fault. He didn't make himself known to me and I doubt that he will, but I don't bear any grudges.'

Against Wakefield Trinity reserves, Pilgrim scored a try, kicked three goals and made headlines of the wrong sort. Questions may have been asked in the House of Lords over whether the punishment fitted the crime, but for Pilgrim there was no reprieve until last week when the International Board reinstated him in the wake of a recommendation from the Rugby Football Union.

'Looking back,' a cheerfully philosophical Pilgrim said, 'it's been a quick year. Even the RFU have been supportive, though I feel a bit sorry for some of them because they have these antiquated laws which a lot disagree with. Unfortunately for me, they needed to say the laws are in black and white and we're going to enforce them. I was the little flag-waving idiot who got caught.'

He can laugh now, but he must have felt hard done by? 'Yes, of course, but if I carried on feeling bitter the only person who'd suffer would be me. In truth, I've played nearly 10 seasons of first-class rugby and I'm only 26. It may have been a godsend to have a year off. I was slowing down each season because of the injuries I was picking up and it's been good to sort them out.'

Just his luck, then, to damage ankle ligaments. 'I was training on my own and I was probably lucky not to break the ankle. It's playing up quite badly.' In fact, if anything got to him during the ban it was training alone.

'To keep yourself motivated is very difficult. Every rugby player has to go down to the gym and do their bit, but six days a week on your own is hard work. I've never been involved in individual sports. It's the success of the team incorporating my own endeavours that

has always appealed to me more.'

And rugby league has its appeal, too. 'I really enjoyed the game. The sport is fantastic. As a back in English rugby union we're a suppressed breed. In the leagues, winning is the only thing and that very often means that a back's talent is thwarted. So to play rugby league when you can run about as much as you want was great fun.'

Once I was banned, I stayed up north observing for six weeks and I learned an awful lot.' There's certainly a higher skill level throughout an entire rugby legaue team, although I don't necessarily think one game is better than the other. Looking at it another way, I've learned more about handling, for example, from playing basketball.'

The question now is can Pilgrim pick up from where he left off. 'It does worry me that the game might have changed beyond my capabilities of catching up and whether I like it or not there's going to be tremendous pressure on me to perform in the first couple of games back, but my actual endurance and general fitness levels are high and it would be great to give you guys some new material to write about.'

Well, he gave us plenty of that when he tried his hand at league. Would he ever do it again? 'If I was going to play rugby league it would have to be for a very large amount of money and probably at the end of my career, but I'm not even really considering it to be honest.'

The only game he is playing at the moment, meanwhile, is a waiting one. 'If I'm going to play for Wasps before the end of the season I will say that I want to play in the first team because I don't have enough time to go through the system. The way it's going at the moment with other people getting injured it might not be too difficult to slot in without putting anybody's nose out of joint.' Pilgrim's way is nothing if not positive.

(Photograph omitted)

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