Simply an inspiration
Steve Prescott died in the early hours of Saturday morning at the age of 39 after a long battle against cancer. On the field Prescott was a Lions tourist, a winner of three major honours with St Helens, a World Cup quarter-finalist with Ireland and a fine player, whether with St Helens, Hull or Wakefield, for whom he scored over 100 tries.
Much more than that, though, he will be remembered for the extraordinary way in which he battled Pseudomyxoma Peritonei, a rare form of stomach cancer, after his diagnosis in 2006 when he was given just six months to live.
Not only did he defy medical opinion by embarking upon the most courageous, heroic and inspirational battle against the disease, but he also raised nearly half a million pounds through a series of incredible physical challenges along with friends, including several former team-mates. As the Rugby League family and the wider public watched in awe, richly deserved accolades poured in, culminating in him being appointed an MBE in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List, which he received from HRH Prince Charles. The son of Eric Prescott, the former St Helens, Widnes and Salford forward, Steve admitted it was inevitable he would play Rugby League, although he and his brother were handy soccer players too when they weren’t on ball-boy duty at rugby matches. He played as a junior for Nutgrove ARLFC, from whom he signed for Saints in the autumn of 1992.
Having repeatedly excelled in the Alliance team (reserve grade), it took less than 12 months for the wiry fullback to make his first-team debut when he figured as a 77th-minute replacement for Jonathan Griffiths in a routine 34-16 win over Leigh on 19 September 1993. “I played first team at 11 stone and that was unheard of, so I had to change people’s views, but I was scoring three tries a game in the ‘A’ team,” he said. “But once I broke through, I stayed in the first team and when Eric Hughes became coach a lot of kids got a chance.” Prescott scored three tries and 29 goals in his first season, including a try and two goals on his 20th birthday – an 8-40 Boxing Day defeat to Wigan, which was a microcosm of a disappointing season in which they came eighth, having only lost the title on points difference a year earlier. Fortunes changed in 1994-95 as Saints came fourth, with their young fullback in deeply impressive form throughout the campaign. He was almost an ever-present, scoring 20 tries in 34 games.
Super League and England
As the sport committed to a summer future, Prescott was just the sort of home-grown talent it needed to launch its Super League era, and in 1996 he enjoyed a dream year. As Saints won the Challenge Cup for the first time since 1976, Prescott scored the first two tries of a thrilling final in which they beat Bradford 40-32. The second, in particular, was a breathtaking effort. He’d also scored a wonderful try at Castleford in an earlier round and had been voted man of the match in the semi-final against Widnes. His excellent form led to an England call-up in the European Championships in a star-studded backline, which included Jason Robinson, Gary Connolly, Paul Newlove and Martin Offiah. On his debut against France in Gateshead, his two tries and seven goals led to him being named man of the match. His 22-point haul was an England record, eclipsing the 21 points scored against Wales in 1978 by another Saints fullback, Geoff Pimblett. A fortnight later, his try in the final against Wales in Cardiff helped England win back the crown from the Dragons. Back in Super League, Saints won their last seven games to pip Wigan to the title by a single point. Prescott’s form was exemplary, with his four tries against Sheffield a particular highlight. It was the club’s first league title in 21 years.
Prescott found himself in the Great Britain squad to tour Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand – the ultimate honour for any British player. For once, however, his golden touch deserted him as he was surprisingly overlooked for a Test spot – with Bradford’s Stuart Spruce picked at the back – and he was one of eleven players controversially sent home early as a cost-cutting measure towards the end of the tour, which was a huge public-relations gaffe by the Rugby Football League. His final contribution to the tour had been scoring a try and four goals in a defeat against a Maori XIII, which included Tawera Nikau and Paul Rauhihi. He soon put the disappointment behind him and helped St Helens retain the Challenge Cup in another Wembley match-up with Bradford. This time Prescott didn’t score, but he helped his side to a 32-22 success. That was as good as it got for the club under the coaching of Shaun McRae, who had taken over from Hughes in time for Super League’s first season. 1997 fizzled out in disappointment as the club stuttered into fourth place, and they were humiliated in their World Club Championship matches too. It was Prescott’s last year at the club – something that clearly rankled. “I was asking for an average wage but they weren’t prepared to give it to me,” he said. “They didn’t look after home-grown talent in those days and Hull offered me what I wanted. Saints wanted me to move on and they played a few mind games with me, so I went.”
Along with Alan Hunte and Simon Booth, Prescott moved to the newly promoted side in a £350,000 transfer and scored his first try for the black and whites in a 78-0 Challenge Cup win over Cumbrian amateurs Ellenborough Rangers. He scored six more during the course of the season, including two in an early-season win over Cup finalists Sheffield as the Sharks, as they were then known, came ninth out of 12. But Peter Walsh’s men failed to build on a promising first Super League season, and only avoided the wooden spoon through having a better points difference than Huddersfield’s. Prescott scored seven tries in 19 games in all competitions before financial problems led to a move to Wakefield. 2000 was another disappointing year – domestically, at least – for the fullback, with Trinity going into administration and Prescott being owed money. He was soon on his way back to the Boulevard again, but not before he starred in Ireland’s fondly remembered World Cup campaign.
World Cup with Ireland
Prescott scored a try against Samoa in the competition’s opening match as Ireland sauntered to a 30-16 win, and he also kicked 17 goals in four games, helping the Irish to the quarter-finals, where they lost by just ten points to England in a match that saw him sin-binned for one of the few times in his career. His return to Hull may not have seen him add to his collection of silverware, but between 2001 and 2003 he found the best form of his career, scoring 41 tries in 67 matches, averaging almost a try a game in his first and last seasons. The club’s fortunes improved considerably with Prescott as their custodian and they were a regular top-six side. It was notable that, after his career-ending injury midway through 2003, Hull slid from fourth to seventh, and out of the play-off reckoning. That fateful game came at Odsal on 2 July as he emulated his father in being picked for Lancashire against Yorkshire. But shortly after coming on as a substitute, and already nursing a calf strain, he broke his knee cap in an accidental collision with Ryan Hudson and was carried from the field. His last game for Hull had been a 44-4 home win over Wakefield, in which he scored two tries and six goals.
Signs of trouble
With his playing career over, Prescott was quick to move on. He became a teacher and then a lecturer in level-one sport in Hull. He also coached the Under-16s at Hull FC, tutoring, among others, Danny Houghton and Tommy Lee. But shortly after his illness was diagnosed in September 2006 – in the week of his second son’s birth – he moved back to the northwest. Prescott had had a long-standing stomach complaint. “I kept going to the doctors and they said my stomach was producing too much acid. In the end I paid to see a specialist and he could see straightaway something was wrong, something my doctor couldn’t pick up. My stomach was getting bigger and I was becoming very gaunt in the face. He told me I had six months to live; that I wouldn’t see my boys grow up. That’s not something I’d wish on anybody. To be taken in that room and told that was horrendous.”
The Steve Prescott Foundation was soon set up and – thanks to a series of high-profile fundraising events, such as charity boxing and rugby matches, walks, marathons, rows and bike rides – hundreds of thousands of pounds was raised for Christies in Manchester, the specialist cancer hospital where Prescott was being treated, and the Rugby League Benevolent Fund, which now comes under the Rugby League Cares banner. As well as that, Prescott was successful in demonstrating to millions of cancer sufferers and their loved ones that it is possible to fight the disease, by extending his six-month life expectancy to over seven years. He took part in many of his Foundation’s gruelling challenges, including a mammoth test of endurance in 2009 when he led a party across France on mountain bikes, across the Thames in a boat, before finishing with a half-marathon to Wembley for the Challenge Cup Final. A month later he became the inaugural winner of the Spirit of Mike Gregory Award, named after the former Great Britain captain, whose life had been cruelly snatched away in 2007 at a similar age to Prescott’s. He went on to work at the RFL on their disciplinary panel and he coached young players at St Helens and at their dual-registration partners, Rochdale. In September of this year, he expressed his delight on his popular Twitter account that the Hornets had beaten Oldham to win promotion to the Championship for 2014. Prescott’s achievements on the Rugby League field don’t quite merit legendary status; but for what he did after September 2006 it is debatable whether the sport of Rugby League has ever boasted a more inspirational man. Steve Prescott MBE is survived by his wife, Linzi, and his sons Taylor and Koby.