Evening Standard

Family ties: a conversation Rob Purdham had with Garry days before his brother was killed still sticks in his mind. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Nearly a year after Garry Purdham was among 12 people killed during a shooting spree in Cumbria, his brother still cannot believe it happened.

“I think of him all the time,” Rob Purdham tells me. “I know I need to get on but it still seems surreal. Even now, it does not feel it has happened. It has not sunk in.”

We are in Piccadilly. The captain of Harlequins rugby league team is just about to become the first man in the sport to complete 10 years playing the game in the capital and is busy organising his testimonial. But, with the noise of central London traffic increasing, his voice drops as he recalls the afternoon he heard the shattering news about a brother who, at 31, was just one year older than him.

“I’d done one training session. I went home to get something to eat and was going back to The Stoop for the second session. I had the TV on and I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ I didn’t know Garry was involved,” he says.

“Then my mum rang in a state telling me what had happened. I couldn’t believe it. I was frantically ringing my friends in the north. They said this maniac is going round. My dad’s farm runs alongside the main road, the A595. Garry was working alongside in an open gateway. He got caught in it.”

Rob had to identify Garry’s body along with Ros, his sister-in-law. “It was horrible. It was a surreal time for west Cumbria. Things like that do not happen in west Cumbria.”

At the funeral, he carried his brother’s coffin to its resting place. “It was very emotional, a cruel day you can never imagine happening.”

A couple of days later, he thought of giving up the game he has loved since both he and Garry were little boys growing up on a farm near Sellafield.

“Everyone was coming to the farm to see my mum and dad. Garry’s sons [Cameron, nine, and Flynn, three] were there and I did think of not coming back to London.

“It would have been easy to stay on the farm. But Ros, my mum, dad and my wife, everyone said you wanted to play rugby league in London. It’s what Garry would have wanted you to do.”

And then he thought of the conversation he and Garry had a few days earlier. As they often did, the two brothers had joshed each other about their rival football teams – Garry, like his father, was a Manchester United fan, Rob loves Liverpool.

Then Garry, who played rugby league with Workington Town and had also appeared for England amateurs, had told Rob what he had done wrong in his last match.

“He was really a good player, probably better than me until we both signed for Whitehaven in 1999. He represented his country before I did. He would watch me on television and would tell me, ‘Why didn’t you do this, why did you do that?’ He was honest and I would take it on board.”

In the wake of the tragedy, Rob does not believe that more rigorous gun control is needed to stop such outrages happening again. He says: “The gun did not fire itself. The trigger was pulled by a maniac.”

The gunman – Derrick Bird – ended his spree by killing himself and at last month’s inquest into the taxi driver’s death he was described by psychologist Dr Adrian West as “a bitter, resentful and depressed man, blaming the rest of society for his failures”.

Rob would only say: “I cannot even define what I feel about him.”

But his brother’s death has made him redefine his religious feelings. Rob may have had a church wedding but now says: “I am not sure there is a God, given what has happened. I might be persuaded otherwise but at the moment I’m not sure.”

What sustains this England international is his mission to spread the game of rugby league in London. He concedes that the sport, despite much evangelising from the league for more than two decades, is still seen as a northern working-class import.

“I see myself spreading the word, battling against football, cricket and rugby union,” says the loose forward, who last played for England at the 2008 World Cup. “Sometimes I feel like a missionary in central London rather than central Africa.”

Soon after he had moved south in 2002 to play for London Broncos, Rob and his team-mates went to a restaurant for a club dinner. “The doorman asked us who we were and when we told him we were the London Broncos he responded, ‘I’ve heard about you. You’re an ice hockey team’.

“Mind you, I played for the England Under-21s in South Africa and they did not have a clue what rugby league was. It’s all union there. And, as in South Africa, rugby union has a special aura in London with Twickenham being the national stadium.”

The result has been that rugby league teams have struggled to survive financially in the capital. In August 2005, after London Broncos went into liquidation with debts of around £3million, the new Harlequins club was created.

Partnership with the more celebrated “Quins” associated the northern game with an historic union team and brought access to one of the country’s best, purpose-built rugby stadiums at Twickenham Stoop. The hope was that this would draw sufficient crowds to guarantee a place in the Super League which was set up in 1996 to popularise the new summer rugby league.

However, far from union shedding glory on to its northern counterpart, the club’s location in rugby union’s heartland has often confused punters. Crowds of 3,000 remain well below the 10,000 benchmark the Super League have set for a franchise, which comes up for renewal this July.

Gus Mackay, who left his managing director role with Surrey at The Oval to become chief executive of Harlequins, is confident the licence will be renewed until 2014.

“We are very much part of the Super League strategy,” says the former Zimbabwean cricketer. “We are working hard to get a further investment of half a million, either from new investors or a new sponsor. When that happens, we might have to consider changing our name to reflect that and move to a new ground. The extra money would also boost the squad.”

The team, 10th in the table after losing 34-16 at home to Salford on Saturday, have faded after some encouraging early performances.

As Mackay explains the economics to me, Rob butts in: “If it isn’t out of order for me to say, we probably need two prop forwards, maybe another centre and another half.” Then with a laugh he adds: “The £500,000 investment would be no problem for Roman Abramovich.” And, of course, is a hundredth of what Fernando Torres cost.

Without a cash injection, how can Harlequins attract more crowds?

“At Wigan they get 18,000 to 25,000,” Rob says. “To get more crowds in London, we have to get a winning side. I’d love to win something with the club. We’ve been in the play-offs twice. They have done it in Australia.

“They had a new franchise in Melbourne, put in a lot of money, got a good coach, a good team and they won competitions. There are nine million people in London. If a tiny percentage support the game, rugby league could grow.”

The problem, as he knows, is that the capital’s residents have no lack of alternative attractions. Although he admits he still misses Cumbria, Rob’s view of London has changed in the decade he has been here.

“It was a big thing for me to come to London. I was frightened, thinking of it as all big concrete buildings everywhere and high rise flats. In the north, you get an image of London as a concrete jungle, busy, busy.”

Indeed, after signing for London Broncos, he spent the pre-season in Australia and saw Melbourne and Sydney before he set foot in his new home city. Yet, almost as soon as he arrived, London charmed him, living first in Blackheath before moving to Surbiton.

“London is more than big buildings. I consider London my home.” And, for all that, you can hear his Cumbrian accent as he speaks. But, he says: “I am passing myself off as a Cockney!”

This penchant for London has been further encouraged by the response he has had when he has visited schools as the game’s ambassador.

“Some schools don’t know what the game is. But 20,000 children play in schools in London.”

Rob takes his missionary role seriously, teaching the kids not just the game but its values too.

He says: “In rugby league, we get taught in training to be respectful to coaches and to other people. It is a more aggressive sport so you can take your tension out on the opposition on the pitch. My rule is whatever happens on the field stays on the pitch. After the game you shake hands.”

And that, Rob believes, is something our national sport, could learn. He adds: “I’ve seen hundreds of football players answer back and scream at the referee. If you do that in the league, you’ll get banned for weeks. Footballers seem to have too much power.”


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