Tossed away after the 2018 season, after seven years of service to Widnes Vikings, 31-year-old Patrick Ah Van was staring into the face of the abyss.
After the first off-season in his entire career he was unemployed, watching his former employers almost crumble financially, he headed to play in France’s Elite Two for Villeghailhenc-Aragon XIII.
Widnes were no strangers to donations while Ah Van set up camp in Carcassonne, with a young fan even donating his savings for a bike to aid their cause emulating how Rugby League showed its all-too-common charitable side.
They came through to the other side, but you only have to ask the former Samoa international and ex-teammates Krisnan Inu, Adam Tangata and Wellington Albert that there were victims of their demise.
“Widnes were telling me that they might sign me,” he said. “It came to the last game and they said after it that I wasn’t getting a contract.
“I was screwed pretty quickly. I’d played professionally since I was 17 and I’ve had quite a lot of luck with signing for clubs pretty easily, this was the first time I wasn’t sure what I was doing for the next season.”
Ah Van acted quickly to secure his future, instead of holding for out for a deal at another English club, he linked up with former Salford, St Helens and Warrington star Vinnie Anderson at VARL XII.
His brother, fellow New Zealand international and ex-Warrington and Catalans forward Louis was also part of the side, which also included former Tonga international and Whitehaven bruiser Saia Makisi.
But, among the star-studded line-up beneath France’s top tier, Ah Van was incredibly humbled by how the club’s operation was primarily on their exemplary ethos.
“I would have played anywhere, I think if it was up to Widnes they would have kept me, but they couldn’t offer me anything,” he said. “Vinnie really helped me out to get over there quickly.
“We were in the Elite Two, but it wasn’t a bad standard. It’s part-time and everyone tries their hardest, we got to the Grand Final but we lost 35-20 to Baho XIII.
“It’s a big family club, that’s why me and my wife wanted to go over there and test the waters in France. We really enjoyed it because it was family-oriented.
“I’d love to go back out there again, eventually, I don’t think I’m ready to give in England but if nothing came up, I’d probably end up back there.
“I was so grateful for the opportunity there, because as soon as you don’t play for a club for a season it’s almost impossible to come back.”
But that he did, and what a story his return to Widnes has brought to Rugby League. We all love a positive tale, well how about the one of the man who offered his services for free and ended up an 1895 Cup finalist.
Ah Van came back to play for the Vikings in July, but the special measures the RFL had placed them under due to their off-season struggles, meant it had to be for free.
“We’d just finished our season in France and Hep Cahill text me asking me to come help the club out,” he explained.
“He said ‘they can’t pay you because of the RFL’ but I wasn’t worried about that, I wasn’t doing anything so I just wanted to play the game I love.
“I’d been following them over the year and I knew they had a lot of injuries on the wings. I just came to help where I could.
“My wife’s a Scouser, and my mother-in-law lives in Widnes, so I just stayed there and got to training from there, I knew it wouldn’t cost me a great deal, but it wasn’t about the money.”
If that wasn’t enough to prove that Ah Van was willing to go one further. After proving his credentials once again, with two tries in his first three games, the winger picked up a nasty ankle injury in the club’s shock 12-8 win against Leigh in the 1895 Cup semi-final.
The club’s supporters showed their compassionate side once again, with talks of a collection for the Ah Van family to celebrate his efforts.
He took to social media to politely decline, however, an act that embodied just how much the club meant to him.
“Me and my wife spoke about it and there was some fans that were planning to raise some money, but we said we’d put it back into the club,” he added.
“The Widnes people have done enough to save the club throughout the year, you had kids saving up their pennies so the club could exist, I couldn’t accept it, even though it was a really kind gesture.”
That makes Widnes’ appearance in the 1895 Cup over Sheffield Eagles all the more special for the former Bradford Bulls winger.
Ah Van came back to help a youthful side, struggling with injuries, over the line. Scarcely did he think that ‘line’ would be the white line of the hallowed turf, as he hopes the club’s fortunes will be resurrected following the (victory).
“I can’t believe my luck,” he said. “This is probably one of the biggest games Widnes have had in recent years because it shows how far they have come in such a short space of time.
“It’s money well spent, for me, I guess. It wasn’t really about me though it was about the fans being able to go to Wembley again and getting the experience of big-games again, hopefully it can show what they have to look forward to in the future.
“I want to be involved in that future, but I’ve got to have a chat with my wife, but no matter what I do in life I think I’d always come back to Widnes Vikings, they have a special place in my heart.”
He can look back on eight seasons in Super League, through thick and through thin, for the root of that love affair, as he admitted he felt he had to repay the faith.
“I came from Bradford and they gave me contract after contract, at times I know I wasn’t playing the best, but they stuck by me and showed the belief in me that I could still do a job for them.
“Everything I’ve done after my return is about giving back to the club, I watched Bradford also get involved in financial troubles after I left, so I knew what it could do to people, and the same happened with Widnes.”
This feature was first published in Rugby League World magazine (Issue 461, Sept 2019).