BEN Heaton will turn back the clock 12 years if he turns out for Oldham in tomorrow’s first-round Betfred Challenge Cup tie against Barrow Raiders at Bower Fold (12.45pm kick-off).
A birthday boy only last week — 31 — Ben will go into a new season with Roughyeds for the first time since 2011, after which he went to Halifax where he scored 58 tries in 137 appearances, spread over seven seasons.
After two more seasons at Hunslet, one of which hardly got going because of the pandemic, he returned to the club where it all began for the then teenager all those years ago.
He was a novice then, wearing his ‘L’ plates, but he’s back now as one of the most experienced centres in the Championship with a CV that includes three clubs, 90 tries and 204 games, most of them with Halifax at the upper end of the sport’s second tier.
In his first spell at Oldham he made his debut off the bench in a 38-8 defeat at Dewsbury Rams, aged 19, in the summer of 2009, but it was his second game in the September of that year that rocketed him into the headlines and caught the attention of Halifax.
Still only 19, he got a shock call-up because of injuries and was thrust into the spotlight at right-centre against York away in a play-off semi-final;.
York were firm favourites, but after Heaton had scored a brilliant solo try in the first few minutes, Roughyeds went on to earn a Grand Final appearance with a 44-14 triumph in which the talented teenager had the starting debut of his dreams.
The Final, alas, wasn’t one for the Heaton scrapbook. He was back on the bench and Roughyeds were beaten 28-26 in one of several Grand Final setbacks around that time.
Since returning to his roots, Heaton picked up a head knock in a friendly at Featherstone, but he sat out the Halifax Panthers game, followed RFL concussion protocols over two weeks, and is now back in the squad for the Barrow game and fully expected to play.
In normal circumstances there would have been a special welcome from the fans for the return of the prodigal son, but as the tie will be played behind closed doors his first game in an Oldham jersey at Bower Fold will be a surreal one.
Roughyeds were poor in a heavy pre-season defeat at Featherstone, much-improved in a 30-18 home defeat by Halifax and now they need to come good at the third time of asking and in the ‘real’ and important start to the 2021 campaign.
The winners play Swinton Lions or Newcastle Thunder away in round two and clubs that are still there in round three not only have a chance of meeting a Super League club, but are automatically through to the semi-final of the 1895 Cup, the final of which is also played at Wembley.
“It’s a terrific incentive for both Barrow and ourselves to know that we are only three wins from Wembley — and all against Championship or League 1 clubs,” said Oldham’s young second-rower Matty Fletcher.
League 1 promotion favourites Barrow will be going into the game ‘cold” without a warm-up game, but the flip side to that is twofold — they’re described by Oldham boss Matt Diskin as an “unknown quantity” and they will be parading several new signings from Super League.
Men to watch — former Oldham half-back Jamie Dallimore, Thailand-born winger Tee Ritson, Aussie back-rower Jarrod Stack and new signings Callum Bustin, Ben Harrison, Ryan Shaw and Adam Walne.
Walne, who was previously at Huddersfield Giants, will form a twin threat with his brother Jordan.
They are rough, tough and intimidating — and together they run a fitness club at Bamber Bridge, near Preston, called ‘Raw and Outdoors’.
That says a lot about the Walne boys!