Hanley's an Ell of a squash player too

BY FRED WILLIS Ellery Hanley, the rugby league legend who left rivals stranded with his electrifying dashes for the line, has become an ambassador for squash.

Hanley has been playing the sport at low-key club level for more than 20 years but his blossoming expertise took centre stage at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre in an exhibition clash with world junior champion James Willstrop, from Pontefract.

It proved an entertaining curtain-raiser to the Prince English Open final.

In the single game handicap Hanley edged home 11-10 with a nick winner. He had the occasion videoed to keep jogging his memory of a shot that brought the house down.

Since Hanley took up the squash racket a raft of rugby union and league players have followed him into the sport, but that does not surprise him. Whenever he can, Hanley takes the opportunity to spread the word about a game which keeps him on his toes.

"They now realise, like me, what a fantastic game it is," said the former Leeds and Great Britain star.

"I thought long and hard about which sport I really wanted to get involved in when I retired from my rugby. I considered basketball, cricket, athletics and then squash.

"But once I had played, that was it. There was no turning back."

Hanley, who rose to fame at rugby league via the city's Corpus Christi Juniors and then at Bradford Northern, Wigan and Leeds, enthuses about the exhilarating feeling he gets from simply stepping on court.

He was attracted to squash because of its speed, co-ordination and the sheer stamina needed to survive – all Hanley hallmarks that can spell a tough time for his rivals.

Scott Hall Sports Centre's pay-as-you-play council courts were the starting point for Hanley's tilt at the game.

It was later developed at the Adel club in north Leeds where, thanks to the coaching expertise of Colin Moss, the rugby star saw his squash talents elevated above expectations.

The Adel club, David Lloyd Centre at Moortown and, more recently, Pontefract Squash Club are now all home-from-home courts.


Hanley took up the invitation to join Pontefract from club coaching professional Malcolm Willstrop after appearing at The Crucible. Willstrop, master of ceremonies for the occasion, was immediately impressed by Hanley's superb fitness and speed around court.

Only recently one of Hanley's knock-about rivals at Pontefract was world No 3 and Scottish international John White. And he has taken to the court with other leading internationals.

Since becoming involved in squash, Hanley has developed a huge respect for the supreme fitness of leading international players.

"The way those people work, train and prepare is just amazing," says Hanley, himself noted for going the extra mile in training schedules.

But, like many in the game, he cannot come to terms with its lack of national recognition when England's success at squash is unrivalled by other sports. He feels major sponsors and famous names to promote the sport would be a welcome start.

The 42-year-old, who has no plans to make a return to the world of rugby – union or league – is enjoying life without pressure at the highest level.

"I have had to be so disciplined for more than 20 years and the expectations had been enormous. I feel that at this stage in my life it is just time to enjoy myself," said the man who captained the Lions on 19 occasions.

So called retirement does not mean it is easy to track down Hanley. When finally located he was at the David Lloyd Centre in Leeds – playing tennis.

Hanley's tennis developed under the guidance of Martin Parkes.

"He's made a fantastic difference to my game," said the man awarded the MBE for his services to rugby league in 1990.

Meanwhile, don't be surprised if Hanley turns up among the ranks of a Pontefract squash team, possibly in the Yorkshire League.

He spends his time in Leeds, Manchester or Australia, but if he's available Pontefract coach Malcolm Willstrop is certain he will make a super sub.

"He still keeps himself remarkably fit and has developed into a very handy squash player," said Willstrop.