EARLIER this year, after the Premiership final at Old Trafford, a clutch of Featherstone players were sitting in the bar. All were supping pints, except one, who stood slightly away from the table, sipping at a Budweiser from the bottle. He held it as a pop star holds a microphone.
Paul Newlove is no pop star; as the most exciting centre in British rugby league, he is a man apart. Yet he is a timid, self-effacing lad, still seemingly surprised by his rapid rise in the game. 'I'm doing all right,' he told me last week, this time twiddling his fingers in the less familiar surroundings of an art gallery on the edge of Castleford. 'I mean, I've got a Mercedes 190. I was expecting Bradford to get me a Cavalier or summat, so a Mercedes 190 was a nice surprise.' Despite his 15st 7lb frame, the 22-year- old Newlove retains an almost boyish awkwardness - off the field. On it, he is articulate in all aspects of the game.
He was born in Cobblers Lane, Pontefract, 'in me mam's house'. He played his first rugby for the Travellers Rest juniors before progressing through Featherstone Miners' Welfare to his local club, Featherstone Rovers, at the age of 17. In his first full season as a professional, he was in the Great Britain side who met New Zealand (against whom he will be lining up again at Wembley on Saturday). Last season he scored 52 tries for Featherstone: more than any other centre- threequarter has scored in the history of the game. Then, during the close season, Newlove moved to Bradford Northern. Featherstone wanted pounds 500,000 for him. Bradford offered pounds 125,000. The tribunal ordered Bradford to pay pounds 245,000. In the working men's clubs of Featherstone, fans think they have been short-changed.
'When I started,' he said, 'I told myself that I would be an international before I was 21. I was an international at the age of 18 and 72 days. I just wanna do well. I knocked Edwards off his perch (Shaun Edwards was previously the youngest international). Somebody will come and knock me off mine. I'm looking to retire at 30. It would be nice to be a millionaire by then.'
What would he do then. Coaching, perhaps? 'I don't know if I'd know how to do it. All I know is that a rugby league career is about this long.' He stopped twiddling his fingers and placed his hands about 18 inches apart, like a fisherman. 'I know a lot of people think I'm chasing the money. But I'm a working-class lad who left school with no qualifications except I knew how to play rugby. Now I'm earning more than them that went to university. Besides, I don't like maths and that.'
There is little doubting Newlove's natural rugby ability. He possesses a side- step as good as any in the game, balance, swerve, pace and composure to rival the best. Add to this timing, an asset only the top handful of players know about, and you have a player you couldn't invent.
'Deep down I wanted to be a soccer player,' he confessed. 'I still do. I don't think rugby league is a big glamorous thing. People outside of it have only heard of Offiah and Hanley. I suppose I'd like to have a boot and clothing deal like them.'
If only he played for Wigan, fame outside the game would surely be his, I ventured. 'I got caught in a traffic jam near Wigan recently and I was thinking 'If I was playing here, I'd have this to face two or three times a week.' ' Couldn't he move to Lancashire? 'No, I've got my family and friends round here. It's where I was brought up, and I still like to go out round Pontefract on Sunday night.'
In a town like Featherstone, where rugby league players are worshipped on Sunday and feted through the rest of the week, Paul Newlove is the latest in a line of local heroes. Last season, I was working with a group of schoolchildren on a drama project to celebrate their idols. I asked a seven-year- old why Newlove was her favourite. She raised her pounds 25 replica jersey, put it in her mouth, and mumbled: 'Cos he's cool.'
'People say I'm cool about it all,' Newlove says. 'People say I'm a natural. Some say that I'm lazy in training - that could be true. People say I could be the next Mal Meninga. He was about 17 stone. I don't know if I could, but I do enough.'
I asked him: 'Do you keep a scrapbook?'
'I used to at the start, but it takes some keeping up with.' Then he smiled his shy smile, pressed his fingertips together and said: 'Our lass keeps it going, though.'
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