BEN Flower is ready for the headlines. He’s ready for some abuse.
But right now, he’s just feeling ready to play again.
What I did was disgraceful - it was a fair banBen Flower
After six months in the shadows, he is poised to step back under the spotlight after his ban for punching St Helens’ Lance Hohaia in the Grand Final ended today.
“I can’t wait,” he said in his rich, Welsh accent.
“It’s going to hype back up a bit and I’m expecting that, and I’m ready for that. I know I’m going to get a lot of abuse from some fans who don’t want to see me back playing.
“But I’m back playing now and looking forward to getting back into it.”
Until last October, the player’s fame was limited to Wigan, other league pockets and his hometown near Cardiff. But his notoriety grew within seconds of the snap-moment he lost his senses and took a big step over the fictitious line which cap rugby league players’ actions.
Dramatic footage and photographs of the incident were beamed around the world.
He was trending on Twitter, made the prime-time sports bulletins in America, and the clip of him delivering the brutal, second punch went viral.
Nothing could have prepared him for the coverage he attracted.
“It was crazy. The scale was worldwide,” he said.
“It was mad. I had people from America messaging me, people who didn’t know about the sport.
“Obviously it was the biggest stage of the year for rugby league and a crazy time, the media hyped it up.”
The reaction rumbled for days, and in the increasing frenzy, some commentators suggested he should face police charges.
Others wanted him to be sacked by Wigan.
“At the time, I was worried,” he said. “Over time, I came to terms with what I did was wrong. I knew the punishment was right.”
Flower’s six-month suspension covered 11 competitive games and was the second-longest (outside of doping) in Super League history, eclipsed only by Terry Newton’s strikes on Lee Gilmour and Sean Long – also for Wigan in a derby match – in 2005.
With so much attention on the incident, it was inevitable the Rugby Football League would come down hard on the Welsh prop.
“I don’t think it was harsher (because of the attention), I don’t think so,” he insists. “What I did was disgraceful - it was a fair ban.”
Hohaia was later banned for a game for a forearm into Flower’s face which sparked the prop’s retaliating swinging arm.
It was the follow-up punch – as Hohaia lay motionless on the ground – which stunned everyone, including Flower himself, whose memories of the incident are “a blur”.
He spoke in detail about the incident in a television interview in January.
“There was no thought process,” he said. “The hype of the whole week blew up... I don’t know what I was thinking.”
St Helens were not among those to condemn the prop.
Minutes after their 16-4 Grand Final win, Hohaia himself fronted journalists and took a ‘what happens on the pitch, stays there’ stance.
Saints’ incoming head coach Keiron Cunningham expressed concern for Flower, rather than condemning him – a show of public support for a player in a potentially vulnerable position.
“I didn’t know at the time, but Keiron got in touch with the club about me,” he said. “I’d love a chat with him one day, because he’s such a legend himself and it was nice of him to be so classy about it all.
“Saints were good about it. And Lance, too. He handled it well, he was a man about it, and I really appreciated that.”
Flower hasn’t watched the incident back since it happened. Nor has he spoken to Hohaia.
“I’ve not seen him,” he said. “I messaged him on the day of the Grand Final to apologise.
“I was at the game (on Good Friday) and I kept an eye out afterwards, but they’d lost, and when you’ve lost the last thing you want to do is speak to someone, so...
“Maybe we’ll get sit down one day and have a coffee and have a chat about it.”
While Flower has previously admitted he was initially concerned by reports of death threats on social media, he says over the past few months he has been overwhelmed by messages of a different tone.
“Honestly, the Wigan fans have been outstanding,” he said.
“I’ve had so many messages, even letters to the door.
“Things like that really spurred me on and gave me a lift. I can’t thank them enough.
“And in fairness to St Helens fans, a lot have got in touch with me, saying, ‘there are no grudges, it’s forgotten now, good luck for the season’ – messages like that.
“It’s really nice of them and I really respect and appreciate that. It’s nice they can forgive and forget.”
In his absence, Wigan have recovered from a sticky spell to climb to third in the Super League ladder. Flower watched the Good Friday victory over St Helens from the DW Stadium gantry, wishing he was out in the thick of it.... though it has been the defeats which have proved most difficult to stomach.
“When you see them coming off with a loss, it’s hard for me, because I’m injury-free but not able to play and help the lads,” he said.
“But my team-mates been great with me. They wind me up every now and again, but I’d rather that, than them being quiet. It sounds daft but the banter has helped.
“Waney’s been great, and all the staff have helped get me back ready. I can’t thank them enough for the support they’ve shown me.”
Flower is not the first league player to attempt to draw a line under various controversies.
Newton rebuilt his career with Bradford, later playing for Great Britain alongside Long, who himself had returned to the spotlight from a betting scandal.
One of Flower’s former team-mates, Gareth Hock, put a drugs ban behind him, and in terms of red cards, Adrian Morley has enjoyed a distinguished career since being famously sent off after 12 seconds in a Test against Australia.
“I saw Adrian after the Salford game, he’s such a lovely bloke but a formidable player, and he’s come on so far from that red card,” says Flower.
“People say, ‘You’re always going to be remembered for that’, but hopefully I won’t be.
“It’s going to be something that’s in my story, but hopefully I can make sure it’s only a little part of it.”
Off the field, he is softly-spoken but loves a prank, and spends most of his free-time with fiancee Laura and their young son, Daley.
“I need to perform now and get back to playing as well as I can and repay my team for the game I missed and the Grand Final obviously,” said the dad-of-one, who is out of contract this year but has an option for 2016.
“It’s not just about me it’s about repaying the team and the boys, who have accepted me back into the team. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.
“I think this game against Warrington will be one of the most nerve-wracking days of my career.
“Definitely up there with Grand Finals and World Clubs and playing for Wales against Australia.
“But I know I’ve got a strong side around me, and once I’ve made a tackle or a carry, I think I’ll settle after that.
“I’ve had a clean-out on my knee, so I’m feeling good.
“Now it’s so close, I can’t wait to get out there again.”