Whelan banks on the Wigan touch to transform Orrell

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Philanthropist, hard-nosed entrepreneur or simple attention-seeker? Dave Whelan is possibly a mixture of all three, but in sport as in business, Wigan's favourite son has tended to get what he wants. And what the former professional footballer wants for Orrell, the latest addition to his sporting empire, is two promotions in the next two seasons, to get them out of National Division Two (effectively, the third division) and into the Zurich Premiership.

Whelan broke a leg playing for Blackburn Rovers in the 1960 FA Cup final but little else in his adult life has gone wrong. Having worked on a market stall even before that career-ending injury at 22, he founded Whelan Discount stores, selling groceries and hardware, before buying, in 1971, a Wigan sports shop by the name of JJB. Thirty years on, with 440 stores nationwide, Whelan's 37 per cent stake in JJB Sports is worth an estimated £370m. He ploughed chunks of his fortune into the purchase of Wigan Athletic, in football, and Wigan Warriors, in rugby league, and relocated both to the impressive JJB Stadium. Now for the town's hard-up rugby union team, Orrell.

Whelan first made a bid for Orrell 18 months ago, but his renewed interest in the 15-man code comes hard on the heels of the league-to-union transfers of Jason Robinson and Henry Paul, and the peace agreement between the RFU and the top clubs. A TV deal with the BBC and Sky, together with a share of healthy receipts from Twickenham internationals, have established the Zurich Premiership as a veritable goldmine. Although he insists a retreat from league is the furthest thing from his mind, Whelan wants a foothold in union.

And while the Premiership is Whelan's target, it doesn't stop there. "We want that Heineken Cup and we're intent on getting it," he said, at the same time as revealing that Wigan Warriors' chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, is currently scouting for Australian and South African players to be fast-tracked into Orrell's squad for the new season. "There'll be at least two foreign players brought in during the next two weeks," said Whelan. "Maurice is an out-and-out winner and has got some great contacts."

Orrell's 500 members are set to vote in favour of Whelan buying a 75 per cent controlling interest at an EGM next month. Each of them has been offered £1,000 a share, making the vote the least tricky decision since the passengers on the Titanic were asked if they wouldn't mind making their way to the lifeboats. Orrell's chairman, Ron Pimblett, and president, Jim Lloyd, have recommended acceptance, unsurprisingly after seeing their club – a drop-kick away from being champions in 1992 – brought to its knees by two relegations in five seasons, and a two-year spell in administration.

"I'm a proud Wiganer," Whelan said, "and we are still committed rugby league people. But rugby union is so much bigger than rugby league, a big game all over Europe, and the world. A merged code is the answer but I doubt it will ever come about. Rugby league's got to come to its senses and get rid of the salary cap because it's destroying the quality."

With equally disarming honesty, he added: "It's heaven-sent that Orrell are so close by. Had they not been, we were seriously considering taking over one of the big teams. There are a couple available to buy, but we had to give consideration to their supporters, and the upheaval if we forced a club to relocate. We are doing this for no other reason than to help sport."

Sammy Southern, Orrell's director of rugby, has been involved with the club for 33 years. The lowest point was this summer, when relegation from National Division One prompted an exodus of players. "It was sad to see the way the club was going," he said. "We were afraid of going into free-fall like West Hartlepool [once of the Premiership but relegated from last season's National Division Two with a record of played 26, lost 26]. Now it's a case of when, not if, we get into the Premiership."

Players are joining in droves, and the squad will be bolstered by several of Wigan's youngsters at the end of the Super League season.

In 1973 Orrell knocked Harlequins out of the old RFU cup, prompting the famous quote (variously attributed to Bob Hiller and Nigel Starmer-Smith): "We were beaten by a lay-by off the M6." The humble surroundings of Edge Hall Road are still home; in fact Wigan's Academy and Alliance sides have trained and played there for some time. But if Orrell progress as Whelan intends, the first team will be playing European rugby at the JJB Stadium. "Orrell have had some mixed fortunes and the supporters are fed up with losing," said Whelan. "I think they're in for an exciting time."

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