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Defiant, united and unbowed

BBC Radio 5 Live rugby league expert George Riley

Adversity is neither a new nor a unique phenomenon in sport. Every club faces challenges, each is dealt setbacks. Yet the fine line between success and failure can often be measured on how a team reacts at times of misfortune and distress.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats are currently hauling themselves through one of the toughest periods in their history.

Adam Watene
Watene was a father figure to many of his Wakefield team-mates
But it is testament to the strength of spirit at the club that every obstacle just makes everyone there more determined to come out smiling on the other side.

"I always plan for the worst scenario as that way you get the odd bonus ball," coach John Kear tells me. "When you play this game, you put your body on the line, so you take whatever is thrown at you."

What has been thrown at Trinity is an extraordinary succession of setbacks; some major, some minor.

The shock death of popular international prop Adam Watene after a weights session in October was undoubtedly major.

It came just six months after his own father died from a heart attack and in the same year as the passing of club legends Don Fox and David Topliss.

Still coming to terms with Watene's death, Kear, who hobbled into pre-season training with a walking stick after undergoing hip surgery, was soon having to deal with a succession of more minor setbacks.

There was the loss through injury of his first-choice half-backs Danny Brough and Jamie Rooney as well as hooker Tevita Leo-Latu and key forward Danny Sculthorpe, not to mention Aaron Murphy, Matt Petersen and Cain Southerwood.

England centre Ryan Atkins then dislocated a shoulder while Richard Moore, another giant prop, was diagnosed with Crohn's disease after losing an alarming amount of weight and won't play again for the foreseeable future.

Adam used to be one of the men we could turn to... he was the quiet guy, but everyone used to go up to him with their problems

Ryan Atkins
That wasn't the end of the misery either. Rooney underwent routine knee surgery this month and technically died for 30 seconds on the operating table.

His heart stopped five minutes after being given an anaesthetic and he had to be resuscitated. "A freak accident," he says, but one that again brought home the fragility of life.

The depletion of an already thin squad led Kear to field a part-time player against Leeds last week. Teenage bricklayer Luke Blake made the 17 against the champions, a game in which Wakefield lost another senior player, Sam Obst, to injury in the warm-up.

Yet Kear remains defiant when I might expect a sob story. "These things happen," he tells me with a matter-of-fact shrug. "We like coping with it and the players are showing their spirit, great determination and desire in bucket-loads."

You would expect that kind of leadership from your head coach, but you do wonder how the players are coping with their catalogue of misfortune. I had a long and illuminating chat with Atkins, who told me that, in the absence of a club counsellor, the players have created their own support network.

In particular, there is a group of five senior players - Obst, Brad Drew, Jason Demetriou, Scott Grix and Tony Martin - that the Wakefield players can turn to for advice.

Damien Blanch tackles Wigan's Joel Tomkins
Wakefield opened their season with a surprise win over Wigan at the JJB
"We have put this structure in place to fill the void left by Adam," said Atkins. "We came back in after the off-season and we all felt like we had lost our dad.

"Adam used to be one of the men we could turn to. He was the quiet guy, but everyone used to go up to him with their problems. He would listen and help.

"When his father passed away, Adam still helped me with the family problems I was having at the time."

Wakefield clearly see this season as being one to produce the goods in Watene's memory. As such, every subsequent setback is shrugged off, including the Rooney heart scare.

That has been "blown out of all proportion" according to Atkins, who says the stand-off is already back at training and giggling about his ordeal. I understand that all of Rooney's test results since have been very positive.

As for Moore, he has started putting the weight back on thanks to his medication and is mentally far more positive now he knows what is wrong with him.

Snooker player Ali Carter also suffers from Crohn's. Although a very different sport to the blood and thunder of rugby league, Carter has successfully overcome the problem to establish himself as one of the best in the world.

We have to keep the emotions in check, perform and do the business

John Kear
Brough tells me his lengthy injury lay-off has been the lowest point of his professional career, not least because he only had one fit arm with which to help his livewire little boy open his presents on Christmas Day. Brough remains a fortnight ahead of schedule and should be back sooner than round five.

"Brough's been a bit down but we have this fines system at Wakefield for people who are late and he's taken it upon himself to implement it," says Atkins.

"He's always shouting 'he's late, he's late!' and it seems to be his way of getting involved in training is to get us in a lot of trouble. He loves to be the centre of attention."

Kear himself says this season's adversity is "an imponderable" and something he hopes he never has to go through in his life ever again.

"We have to learn how to cope with everything while respecting Adam's memory," he says. "We have to keep the emotions in check, perform and do the business. The players are sure to sweat blood this season for Adam's cause."

On his own recovery from hip surgery, Kear says his twinkles toes will be back in no time, so he hasn't yet ruled out Strictly Come Dancing when that time comes around again.

Ryan Atkins
Atkins earned a trip to the sin-bin in his first game back
Atkins himself perhaps best summed up the Wildcats fire when the usually mild-mannered Leeds lad erupted in his home city last week. His return from injury was curtailed by a sin-binning after Carl Ablett was caught by an Atkins elbow.

"That was a build up of emotion, enthusiasm and aggression," says Atkins. "I did all the England camp training, missed out on the Wales game, spent the off-season thinking about where I want to be and what I have to learn, did all the pre-season work then did my shoulder in a friendly.

"So my first game back I was pumped up and had a bit of an explosion. I elbowed Ablett and kind of lost it. Kylie Leuluai threw me around like a rag doll, but we need that bit of grit and grunt to get amongst the big boys."

The Wildcats grunt is pretty loud right now. Atkins dislocated his shoulder the day before I ruptured my ankle ligaments. I was pretty confident I would be fit before him and he would therefore be buying the beer next time I saw him.

I lost the bet spectacularly as he came back weeks ahead of schedule. Either the Wildcats have a terrific medical staff or I need a shot of their ultra-fierce determination to succeed.

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see also
Wakefield set to sign Winterstein
18 Feb 09 |  Wakefield
Leeds 18-4 Wakefield
13 Feb 09 |  Rugby League
Rooney relief after heart scare
12 Feb 09 |  Wakefield
Wildcat Moore has Crohn's disease
11 Feb 09 |  Wakefield
Injury boost for Wildcats' Atkins
29 Jan 09 |  Wakefield
Wildcats in Watene shirt tribute
16 Dec 08 |  Wakefield
Wakefield plan to honour Watene
17 Oct 08 |  Wakefield


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