x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Waterboy Wiggins helps out the team at Dubai Sevens

Tour de France winner refreshes a Joining Jack side struggling to adapt from rugby league to union code.

Bradley Wiggins, in yellow, with the Joining Jack team in training.
Bradley Wiggins, in yellow, with the Joining Jack team in training.

Last minute cramming has never looked anything like this. Usually it is done by overly-earnest school nerds with patches on the elbows of their blazers, poring over dog-eared library books.

This time, in the corner of a field at a tournament in the desert, two rugby giants - metaphorically and physically - were testing each other. Appropriately, they were making each other gradually more nervous about the coming examination.

At 9.10am at The Sevens, Paul Sculthorpe, a former rugby league Man of Steel with numerous Great Britain Test caps, was crashing into Steve Hampson, another veteran of international rugby league.

"Am I not allowed to do that then?" Hampson asked, as they worked on some method of jackalling for the ball which has rarely been seen before in union.

Sculthorpe just shrugged, as if to say: "Don't ask me." Somebody stepped in to help, saying not to do it like that, but to do it like this instead. Both players looked at him like he was a weirdo.

Jason Robinson, their teammate with the most union experience, surveyed the scene and admonished them like a teacher. "Hey, don't be learning the rules now," he said.

Given the amount of stardust floating around the Joining Jack charity side, you would not think there would be slightest hint of nerves over playing in a social veterans tournament. Most have won Challenge Cup finals at Wembley Stadium. Some have played in World Cup finals.

A weekend conversion to union, though, is a tougher assignment than meets the eye. "It was a quiet bus journey on the way here, let's put it that way," said Kris Radlinski, the former Wigan Warriors and Great Britain fullback.

"A lot of us have never played this game, and a lot of them haven't played rugby at all for 10 years."

Fortunately for the rugby league veterans side, their opponents were a little apprehensive about playing them, too.

When the volunteers tasked with ensuring the tournament runs to time met with Gulf Legends before the first match of the pool, one of the players said to them hopefully: "Are they happy to forfeit?"

Today's bruises may testify otherwise, but the local team acquitted themselves well against the former professionals. When William Wood scored a try for the Gulf team, they were only two points behind.

Tries from Denis Betts, Sean Long, Mick Cassidy, and a crowd pleasing score from Robinson meant Joining Jack hurdled their first obstacle, though.

"We were guilty at first of trying to get into the technicalities of rugby union," Radlinski said.

"We don't really know that, so we have come up with a concept of winning the collision.

"If we do that it means we don't have to go into the rucks, so we ended up playing some rugby league in the second game."

Maybe it was their new game-plan which saw them to a 38-0 over Swansea Richmond Heavies in their second match.

Or perhaps they realised they had to perform, following the arrival of their waterboy from his early morning arrival at Dubai International Airport: Bradley Wiggins.

As a big rugby league - and Wigan in particular - fan, Wiggins idolised most of the Joining Jack players.

It was he who instigated his involvement in the charity, which raises funds for Duchenne muscular dystrophy research, after he attended Super League's Millennium Magic weekend.

Despite being perhaps the most famous sportsman outside of football currently in the UK, the champion cyclist still seems to be in awe of them.

"You can see how fit they all still are," the Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medallist said of the team he was ferrying drinks to.

"They just demolished that team. I think that is the difference between league and union: the league boys tend to stay quite fit, where as the other lot were a mess. They were all fat and horrible."

Wiggins says all of the side's players here this weekend are his "heroes", and could not pick a favourite.

"The great thing is it is such a team sport," he said. "It is not like football, where nine times out of 10 it is always one player people turn up to see.

"It is played by teams, but it is always about the likes of Messi or Beckham - it becomes about one player, where as rugby league can't be, it is such a team sport. Everyone has to play their part, so they all become heroes."

As if union rules were not enough to tax the Joining Jack players, the might have been forgiven for being star-struck by having their drinks brought to them by the favourite for BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award.

"It is the other way around," Radlinski said.

"He collects rugby memorabilia, he wants to be in this environment with the boys. We just treat him as one of us, which is what he wants."

pradley@thenational.ae

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