FEARSOME FRONT-ROWER Darren Fleary’s rise from lower division obscurity to Great Britain recognition is one of rugby league’s more unlikely stories.
Fleary – who celebrates his 40th birthday today – joined Leeds Rhinos in bizarre circumstances from Keighley Cougars, in July 1997.
Keighley were in a financial crisis when Leeds stepped in to pay £25,000 – a sum which kept the club afloat – for nine of their players.
The jewel in the crown was former international Daryl Powell, but among those also included in the deal were Phil Cantillon, Adrian Flynn, Simon Irving and Fleary.
With more than 150 appearances under his belt for Dewsbury Rams and Keighley, Fleary wasn’t regarded as much more than a make-weight, but within 18 months of joining Leeds he was playing Test rugby.
When Graham Murray took over as Leeds coach at the start of 1998 his first job was to toughen up Leeds’ middle and introduce a more aggressive style of defence.
In Fleary, who made a couple of first team appearances off the bench at the end of 1997, he recognised somebody who could do just that.
Softly spoken, but all-muscle, Fleary was a quiet assassin and he quickly became a Headingley fans’ favourite – announcing his arrival on the Super League scene with a huge hit on Bradford Bulls’ Graeme Bradley when Leeds won away to the champions at Easter, 1998.
Fleary was prepared to drive the ball in all day, but was most impressive with his tough defence, when opponents took the wrong option of running at him.
Not a flashy player, he was highly-rated by his Leeds team-mates for his selfless work ethic and his willingness to do the little things which are so crucial to an overall team performance.
Fleary quickly earned selection for Emerging England, against Wales and made his Great Britain debut in the 1998 Test series against New Zealand.
He was also a member of England’s 2000 World Cup squad.
Fleary was a starting prop in Rhinos’ 1998 Grand Final loss to Wigan Warriors – not much more than a year after joining the club – and picked up a winner’s medal in the following year’s Challenge Cup final demolition of London Broncos.
One half of a tough double-act with his great mate Anthony Farrell, Fleary remained at Leeds (making 98 Super League starts and nine appearances off the bench) until joining hometown club Huddersfield Giants in 2003.
After two years there (43 Super League starts, plus eight as sub) he finished his career with a spell at Leigh Centurions, making 24 Super League appearances during their only season in the top flight.