Wanderer finds new tune to his liking

Dave Hadfield on a man in form for today's Regal Trophy final
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The big occasions of the game have been scattered rather thinly through the long career of Greg Mackey.

There was a humble substitute's role for his first club, South Sydney, in a midweek final in 1981, and a reserve-grade Grand Final two years later. He won a Lancashire Cup with Warrington in 1989 and a n Premiership at Hull in 1991.

It has been, as Australians would put it, a long time between drinks, and it is small wonder that Mackey has been so reluctant to rule himself out of today's Regal Trophy final.

Most players would have given themselves a break long before now, because the Warrington scrum-half has played a good slice of this season through clenched teeth, first with a cracked rib and, more recently, with a broken bone in his shoulder.

Pain thresholds vary widely, even in a game where a certain amount of agony is unavoidable, but Mackey's is high enough for him to have got through those matches without a painkilling needle.

He would, you feel sure, rather suffer that discomfort than the different sort of torment involved in watching powerlessly from the touchline.

By his own account a hyper-active child, he has not been mellowed beyond recognition by the passage of time - he is now 33 - and he would surely be bouncing around the walls of the dug-out this afternoon if he was condemned to watch rather than play.

"I don't like missing matches at the best of times, let alone major finals," he said. "There haven't been too many and the last one with Warrington, five and a half years back, seems a very long time ago."

Mackey has not, in fact, missed a competitive match for Warrington since returning from his interlude on Humberside three seasons ago: "Although I've given them a few scares from time to time."

He has his sights set firmly on the club's record for consecutive appearances and does not want to let a few broken bones get in the way of that aim.

It would be an ironic achievement for Mackey, because he has always by temperament been one of the game's wanderers.

Disillusioned at Souths, he joined a trickle of Australian players to France, where he played for the pioneering club, Paris Chatillon. He has also played for Illawarra and Canterbury in the Winfield Cup and his movements between Warrington and Hull werenot without acrimony.

Throughout it all, Mackey has remained an archetypal rugby league scrum-half. Snappy, aggressive, voluble; even his nickname, "Blue", is an Australian synonym for trouble and conflict. It is impossible to imagine him playing any other game or any other position.

His own club's supporters can take him for granted; most of them, after all, have little experience of seeing Warrington play without him. His value is better judged from the reaction of opposing fans; the Warrington player who gets them hot under the collar is not one of the forwards twice his size nor even the arrogantly gifted Jonathan Davies. The player they dislike most vehemently and the one they would like in their own side is Mackey.

Most of all, though, Warrington need him today, whichever scrum-half Wigan field. He is one of the few players who can match Shaun Edwards for sheer niggling persistence. If Edwards does not play, a match-up between Mackey and the highly promising but relatively inexperienced youngster, Craig Murdock, would be one of the few areas in which Warrington have an obvious edge.

"I've played against him before and I've plenty of respect for the young bloke," Mackey says, but you can just imagine what he means by his promise to give him "a torrid time" if the two meet head-to-head again this n afternoon.

Mackey was seeing a specialist yesterday, hoping desperately to get permission to play, despite the muscle damage around the site of his now mended shoulder fracture.

He is usually the one making all the vital decisions. It is another of the ironies of this match that Warrington's chances today rest so heavily on a decision made not by him but for him.