Skerrett stirs dragon's blood

Rugby League World Cup: Kumuls can earn a place in British affections as a recruitment drive pays off in the valleys; Owen Slot meets a strongman who became a Welsh missionary
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The Independent Online
ONE of the more intimidating sights in rugby league is the Wigan front row - Kelvin Skerrett, Neil Cowie and Martin Hall - in aggressive mood. Skerrett is awesome enough on his own but back in January, Frano Botica was pinned in a corner of the Wigan dressing-room by all three. "Frano," he was effectively told, "you are Welsh and you are going to play for Wales."

Poor Botica had foolishly let slip that he was of Welsh descent and so unfolded this rather unlikely scene of three Northerners getting heavy with a Kiwi for the cause of Wales. "We really put the screws on," Skerrett said with a grin. Was Botica interested? "He was when we mentioned money. I think we lied and told him he would make a fortune."

Botica eventually rang New Zealand to ask permission to play for Wales, but was forbidden by his father. The recruiting drive did not end there, though; Paul Atcheson was next on the list. "It was my own decision to play for Wales," Atcheson said, "but without Kelvin's help, I might have taken longer. He was the first one to put his foot forward and the rest of us followed."

Which explains the number of strong Northern accents that will greet France when they play Wales at Cardiff tomorrow night. The story - which one paper printed - was that Skerrett had led these men South as a joke. The punchline was only improved when Skerrett was interviewed on BBC Wales and explained in his strong Yorkshire brogue that, really, he had the blood of the Dragon running through him. This was perhaps what provoked some ex-union internationals to complain that their new countrymen were as Welsh as bangers and mash. "Maybe that's what they think we eat up there, I don't know," Skerrett said. "Just because I don't speak the language doesn't mean I can't play and die for the team. If speaking Welsh helps you play better, then I'll start learning the language."

The Wigan team were also amused by their new Welshmen, but this did not bother "Dai Skerrett", as he was briefly known. "No, not with me being the biggest lad in the dressing-room," he said, alluding to the fact that, besides 16 Great Britain caps, Wales are also getting a prop of substantial reputation. More than most he has been in the wars and those he has waged he has generally won. This is the man whose double jaw fracture in the 1994 Premiership final was greeted by John Joyner, the defeated Castleford coach, with: "He's given enough in his time. He can't have any complaints."

It is a little touching, then, to hear Skerrett talk about his "calling" to Wales, to the trip when he was a boy to see his uncle Trevor play for Wales against Australia at Swansea when he was car sick five times on each leg of the journey, and to his grandma - hardmen surely don't have grannies - who is so proud.

It is his grandmother who is Skerrett's Welsh connection and the reason he was allowed to play when the qualification rules were relaxed in January. The impetus for the rule-change came from Clive Griffiths, the Welsh coach, who wrote to Maurice Lindsay a year ago after Wales had lost 46-4 to the Kangaroos. Wales could not be a force with their limited numbers, Griffiths explained. Lindsay agreed and extended the qualification rules from parents to grandparents. Griffiths called a meeting at the next Welsh training session and gave the final casting vote to the original players, some of whom would lose their places.

"There were no real grumbles," Griffiths recalled, explaining that his own worry was that the new influx would dilute the team's identity. "But that turned out not to be a problem and after one night at the local hostelry, they were Welsh."

Their acceptance may have been due to their enthusiasm to introduce games to the squad to relieve the customary inter- training session boredom. On first arrival, they introduced Wigan Monopoly (where Standish is Mayfair and you pass Central Park to collect pounds 200), second time around they brought single-syllable scrabble (complete with reference books, the boys loved it) and this time it was Sega computer games. When it transpired that the hotel televisions did not have the sockets to take them, they bought one that did.

"Only going on the pitch and playing like a Welshman would prove the point," Skerrett said. And thus it was that on 1 February, on his debut, Wales came from behind to beat England 18-16. It was a victory in which Skerrett played his way into his new public's affections and which convinced Griffiths to keep the door to the Anglo-Welsh wide open. And if any of them are unsure whether to step through it, he could always send round Skerrett and friends on one of their friendly recruiting missions.