For most of England’s World Cup squad, remembering where they were the last time the tournament was played on these shores nine years ago is a straightforward task. Andy Ackers, however, needs a moment to refresh his memory, and understandably so.
“I can’t even think that far back – how old would I have been?” Ackers asks on the eve of his Test debut. The answer to his question is 19, and while most of his teammates in England’s Group A game against France on Saturday would have been full-time professionals just starting their careers in Super League, Ackers’ journey to the pinnacle of international rugby league is somewhat different.
By 19, he had been released from the academy of his hometown club, Wigan. He was given a second opportunity at Warrington but was ultimately let go by the Wolves too, leaving him with no option but to go part-time. “I was definitely working with my dad somewhere when the last World Cup was on,” he says.
“I got released by Wigan when I was 18 and then went to Warrington but by that point, I would have been working full-time and going to training on a night. If someone had told me nine years ago I’d be playing in a home World Cup, I’d have obviously snatched your hands off.”
Ackers joined lower-league side Swinton, which was the start of a remarkable career that has taken him to the capital with London Broncos and across the Atlantic as part of the Toronto Wolfpack squad that won promotion to Super League in 2019. It was a long, unconventional route back to the top for Ackers but within months of Toronto’s Super League debut, Covid-19 struck and the Wolfpack ultimately went bust.
His form for Toronto had not gone unnoticed, though, and after their demise, Salford offered Ackers a path back into Super League. He has since become one of the standout hookers in the competition and it was no surprise to those who have watched the 28-year-old this year that his form earned him a first England call-up for the World Cup. It is a long way from the world of 5.30am alarm clocks and life labouring on a building site.
“It’s not been a sweet journey,” Ackers smiles. “But I’ve worked my socks off, I’ve not given up and I’ve persevered. It’s a bit of a story, isn’t it? If I’d carried on when I was younger I’d have maybe made it a lot sooner, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t change my story and my journey for the world.
“I was doing everything you could think of work-wise, selling dogs, working with my dad on a building site and general labouring. But that life wasn’t for me, it made me hungrier and desperate to get off there and back into full-time rugby. I was getting up at 5.30am, finishing at 5pm, getting to training in the evening and training until 9pm in the freezing cold. No, it wasn’t for me.”
Ackers was left out for England’s comprehensive victory over Samoa last weekend. But after impressing in the warm-up win over Fiji, the hooker will win his first Test cap against France in front of a sell-out crowd in Bolton this weekend. That alone would be a special occasion, but Ackers has extra reason to celebrate.
“It’s my little lad’s third birthday on Saturday and he’s from Bolton so it’ll be a special occasion and another story to tell,” he says. “I think I’ve asked for about 10 tickets already for family and friends and the requests are still coming in now. They’re all coming out of the woodwork! They don’t come to watch me when it’s Salford – it’s only because it’s England. But it’ll be a really special day and a very proud one.”
The manner of England’s victory against Samoa last week has shifted the narrative around their World Cup chances. Underdogs to finish top of Group A only a week ago, wins against the French and debutants Greece will confirm top spot and an easier route to the final. Internally though, Ackers insists the belief the squad has didn’t waver despite them being written off by some before the Samoa game.
“Before it all kicked off people wrote us off but this is the most confident team I’ve ever been involved in,” Ackers says. “We know what we’re capable of, every player knows what they can do and so does Shaun [Wane]. I think we’ll get the job done too. It’s better to shove it in the face of people with a result like Samoa, when everyone was writing us off. This team knows full well what we can do.”