By STEVE MASCORD
“GO on,” a man in his 50s tells his young son, wearing a Warrington jersey, who has just posed for a photo with Pat Richards on King Street in Wigan.
The youngster, maybe 11, looks nervous has he faces the Australian-come-Irish winger who had two days before kicked four goals from as many attempts in front of 78,000 people at Wembley Stadium.
Mustering his best Neighbours accent, the kid says “no worries, mate!” to the lanky flanker who has turned back toward him.
Richards smiles kindly. “Good on you, mate,” he responds.
Even for A-List, this is a pinch-me moment. For almost three decades I’ve been sitting up until 2am watching Challenge Cup finals and reading about open-top bus homecomings for the winning (and even losing) teams.
Now, here I am, with one of the Cup winners’ star players, walking the streets of Wigan after one such parade attracted up to 20,000 fans. There are still the remnants of streamers and banners lying around and Jumpin’ Jaks bar – where this interview was conducted with music pulsing in the background – is busier than it out to be on a Bank Holiday Monday.
These rituals, like most of rugby league’s, happen completely out of sight from the national press in the UK. They are almost direct interactions between fans and teams, and as a result you feel like you’ve stepped into a timewarp on afternoons such as this.
There are no minders around the celebrating players. There is no-one telling Richards he shouldn’t be in a bar at 4.30 in the afternoon. I contact the player directly, chat to him for as long as I have to, and he walks me back to the train station.
This is what rugby league would still be like in Australia if the media didn’t care about it.
“It’s been crazy,” 31-year-old Richards says, tired by sober, leaning on a stand-up bar table inside Jumping Jaks.
“It’s like you say, when you’re a kid you see these games on tele and then you’re involved in them and the stuff that goes with them.
“We came back today and there’s a parade with probably 20,000 people in Wigan. It doesn’t really sink in just yet. It’s a bit of a crazy sort of time but I’ve loved every minute of it.
“The rugby league towns – Wigan’s one of them – have a history of being involved in this and that Challenge Cup is massive for them. To be involved in it has been amazing.”
Since scoring that unforgettable try off Benji Marshall’s flick pass in the 2005 grand final, Richards has written his name into the history books of rugby league in the country that invented it.
He is the first Australian to score 1000 points at Wigan, the club’s highest points scorer in a single match during the Super League era, the competition’s leading pointscorer multiple times, the former Man of Steel as its best player,
“I thought I’d be here two years,” he admits. “I had a third year option but that was in my favour. After two years, I thought ‘it’s pretty good here’ so I extended one more year and thought I’d probably go home. Then I signed around three years and another two years on top of that!
“I just kept extending, I thought ‘why not, I’m enjoying it’. I’m in another part of the world, I can always go back to Australia. It’s worked out great for me.
“I’ve been everywhere. I’ve been to Italy loads of times, that’s probably my favourite place. Just everything’s on your doorstep, you know? Flights are so cheap. In an hour, you can be in Paris or somewhere like that. As Aussies, it takes us 24 hours to get anywhere.
“The game’s not in the newspapers at all, the major ones. In Sydney, you get the paper and you can go eight pages back and it’s still rugby league. In the major papers here, you’re 10 pages in and it’s one little paragraph. I think that’s a good thing as well, the boys love that it’s not in there.”
The decision to sign with Wests Tigers for the next two years was just as easy as all those contract extensions at DW Stadium. Pat wants to settle his family back home.
“If I didn’t go now, I’d never get the chance to go back and when the Tigers came in, it’s a perfect fit really,” he reflects. “Obviously I’ve been there before and to go back and finish my career in the NRL, it’s too good to refuse.
“If another club would have come in, I would have probably looked at it. When they came in, it just felt right.”
When Richards signed,a reunion with Marshall was a tantalising prospect. “Originally, at the time, I did (think it would happen) because he was still signed but he’s decided to move on and I wish him well,” he says.
But things change. Richards was at his peak when he signed for Wigan. Today, a player in his position would probably try to wriggle out of the deal.
“It’s a weird one, that. I don’t know how people can do that, you know? You sign a contract, that’s what you do. I don’t really know which way you want to go with me on this one.
“ I’ve got no real regrets at all about what I’ve done. I’ve loved my time here, I loved my time back there. I’m going to miss the place here. I’ve made some good friends here as well.”
Similarly, things have not exactly soared at Wests Tigers since Pat’s homecoming was announced. The joint venture partners are at loggerheads over funding and coach Michael Potter’s side is second last on the table.
Richards says: “I’m still in touch with the boys there – Robbie Farah, Dene Halatau is going back now as well.
“They’re a side I look out for because I’ve got a lot of mates there as well and I suppose it’s unfortunate they’ve had a pretty bad run with injuries this year and obviously the pressure back there, it’s been quite tough.
“But they’ve got a very promising future with a lot of these young kids. Luke Brooks had a great game the other day and that’s where the future lies for them – those young fellas coming through.
“I see it as a challenge, yeah. Because of my age, people are going to say ‘too old’ and whatever. Everything’s a challenge. I’ve been involved in a club like Wigan where we’re expected to win every week so that’s a challenge in itself.”
But Pat, who’ll again suit up for Ireland in the World Cup, has never been the sort to let pressure weigh him down. He stayed in England because it felt right – and recently booted a field goal from the wing, near halfway, in the derby against St Helens for the same reason.
The one-pointer is truly a modern wonder of the game and has become a YouTube sensation.
“It’s gone a bit crazy. I don’t even know why I had a crack at it, to be honest. I just had a ball thrown to me on the last and just thought ‘oh well, I might as well have a shot. It happened so quick. It would have been better if won the game. Oh well, it wasn’t to be.
“I wasn’t goal-kicking when I was in the NRL. I played soccer when I was a kid. I always loved kicking a ball. I enjoy that part of it, goal-kicking as well.”
Richards would like to get involved in coaching when he retires. He isn’t sure if he’ll be playing against Wigan fullback Sam Tomkins in the NRL next season “Sam, he says he hasn’t signed a contract. That’s what everyone believes.”
After the final photo of Wigan’s Challenge Cup celebrations, with the “no worries, mate” lad, we walk back to Wigan North Western Station with Pat’s brother-in-law, who is going home next week … “unless that job in London comes up”.
Pat Richards isn’t much different. He’s been on a helluva working holiday for the last eight years, breaking records and playing before massive crowds.
Now he’s going home, like thousands of other expats in myriad lines of work.
“The Challenge Cup on Saturday, it was the 19th time the club’s won it,” he says proudly.
“We’ve got great history in this club and to be involved in this is something I’ll always remember. It’s a privilege to play for the club.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK