Ex-England star hoping for World Cup lift

Former Wakefield RFC and England captain Mike Harrison is hoping the sport can capitalise on England's World Cup triumph and more people will be drawn to playing and watching the game writes Richard Byram.

With clubs across the region reporting an upsurge in interest following England's win in Sydney, Harrison hopes that clubs in the Wakefield district will benefit from the feelgood factor sweeping the sport.

More than 7,500 turned up at Headingley earlier this month to see the Webb Ellis Trophy paraded at the Leeds v Gloucester match – 6,000 more than the Tykes previous home gate – and Harrison believes clubs have to exploit the interest now if the sport is to benefit in the long term.

Locally the number of people playing for the city's clubs has fallen in recent years, but between them Wakefield, Sandal, Stanley Rodillians and Ossett field around ten teams each weekend while Sandal also boast one of the best mini and youth set-ups in the country.

The four clubs have the facilities and coaching in place for anyone wanting to take up the game regardless of age or ability.

"We need to build on the success of the national team and no doubt the powers that be will be geared up to handle the youngsters who want to play and hopefully become the next Jonny Wilkinsons.

"In the final itself I don't think England ever played to their full potential, but the game at Leeds showed the interest is there and the clubs have now got to harness that and point people in the right direction if they want to take up the game.

"I know with the onset of professionalism a lot of adults stopped playing the game and clubs that used to run four or five teams now only run two so it is important we get people back playing."

Harrison's own enthusiasm for the game has never waned in a 26-year career which began at College Grove saw him captain England at the 1987 World Cup and still sees him playing for Wakefield Cougars in Yorkshire 4 at the age of 47.

Like World Cup winning centre Mike Tindall, Harrison was educated at QEGS Wakefield, where he played the 15-a-side game until being injured in a car crash, which at one stage looked like ending his sporting career.

After the doctors had given him the all clear he took up football, but it was only when he turned out for his bank's rugby team that he realised what he had been missing and from there his union career blossomed.

"I was 21 when I started off down at College Grove and my only real ambition then was to play for Yorkshire, then when I achieved that I aimed a little higher, looking to play for the North and then eventually England.

"I missed out on England following a trial in 1981, John Carleton and Mike Slemen were the men in the side then, but eventually I got picked in four years later and took my chance."

Harrison went on to play for his country 15 times, seven as captain and earned the nickname Burglar Bill from the New Zealand media after scoring breakaway length of the field tries in successive Test matches against the mighty All Blacks in 1985.

That was in the days of amateurism and when product endorsement by union players came down to drinking what the captain did in the bar, Harrison actually had a beer brewed in his honour by Wakefield's Clark's Brewery called, naturally, Burglar Bill's:

"In the first match I intercepted a pass intended for John Kirwan and went the length of the field and in the second game the same thing happened again.

"Their media Christened me Burglar Bill and it has stuck ever since and as far as I know they are still brewing the beer too."

It seems even more incredible today in an era of full blown professionalism and the Zurich Premiership that in the mid-1980s Wakefield had two England internationals – Harrison and Bryan Barley, while full back Ray Adamson toured Australia without actually playing for the national side.

Barley himself is still playing for Sandal Vets as a way of keeping in shape for the various international tournaments the pair still get invited to, with each man refusing to let the other retire.

In a recent newspaper article England legend Dean Richards said Harrison would be the only player from the first World Cup squad who would have made it into the current one and certainly his explosive speed off the mark would have made him a contender in any era.

In his playing days entertaining the crowd was not the number one priority in union, but despite this, Wakefield were never afraid to throw the ball about.

If Harrison got the ball in his own 22 with a yard of space the College Grove crowd expected him to go for the opposition line at a time when everything in the home half was routinely kicked into touch at all levels of the game.

"I have always given 100 per cent for which ever team I have played for, I have always enjoyed playing, which is why I still do it now.

"The World Cup was a fantastic success and seems to have captured the imagination of all sports fans people who I know who like rugby league and soccer have been fascinated by it.

"I think when soccer fans see how the 30,000 England fans out there had a good time and no trouble with opposing supporters they hopefully think that is what it should be like in their sport too.

"England's success has given the sport great exposure and it should do wonders for the profile of the game and hopefully we will see a resurgence in getting people back playing the sport at all levels of the game as that is what is needed."

The Grovers' legend recently returned from a the Bermuda World Classics, carrying an injury which led to rumours the great man might have finally hung up his boots, but Harrison quickly dismisses such thoughts:

"Oh no, I haven't retired and am hoping to be back for the Cougars in January. I was injured in Bermuda and it is just taking me longer to shake off the injury than I thought and as I have said before it beats shopping on a Saturday afternoon.

"I don't like being frustrated at not being able to run around. It has been a long time and I am probably being too impatient because each time I try to get back I break down but I am hoping to get back in the new year."