Karl Pryce has gone from cult hero, to the player the fans love to hate, and back again. Once a rising star at Bradford, he has taken four years to retain that status at Wigan, having missed more than an entire season of rugby along the way.
Pryce made his debut for Bradford whilst still a teenager, and his size and powerful running style, combined with a good try scoring record, made him an almost instant hit with the Odsal faithful. In 2006, at the age of 20, he was lured away to the ‘dark side’, and signed a rugby union contract with the then Guinness Premiership front-runners, Gloucester. They had big plans for him, not least because he was another convert from league – but this time a player yet to reach his prime – who just might be able to follow in Jason Robinson’s illusive footsteps.
Sadly for Karl, his union career never really took off, and he found himself playing much of his rugby for Gloucester’s ‘feeder’ club, Moseley in the National Division 1. In October 2007 he suffered a fracture in his ankle, and never played rugby union again.
In December 2007, despite his injury, Wigan took a gamble on him and he returned to his rugby league roots, although now on the opposite side of the Pennines. His ankle injury turned out to be worse than first feared, and he ended up missing the entire 2008 season. The injury though, may not have been the only reason for him missing the whole season. Some on-lookers believe it had more to do with the mid-season arrivals of Cameron Phelps and Tim Smith from Australia, that meant Wigan were all but ‘maxed out’ on the salary cap, and had to ask Karl to sit out the whole season as a consequence, instead of just a portion of it. He finally made his Wigan debut in a pre-season game in December 2008.
In 2009 he played just six Super League games – including two as a substitute – in which he scored two tries. On 10th July 2009, he came off the bench in Wigan’s home game against the Catalan Dragons, and was booed by his own fans almost every time he touched the ball. His plight wasn’t helped by the fact that he was asked to play out of position – in the stand-off role, while Thomas Leuluai was sin-binned – and he left the field before long after suffering an injury.
Despite having the fans ‘on his back’, and not being able to hold down a first team spot, he managed to average more than a try a game in 15 appearances for Wigan’s reserves, after deciding to stay at Wigan and fight for his first team future – he even turned down a loan move to Leigh part way through the season.
On to 2010, and Karl started the season some way down the pecking order, with Amos Roberts and Pat Richards the preferred options out wide, and Darrell Goulding and Shaun Ainscough also waiting in the wings. Even an injury to full-back Cameron Phelps, didn’t result in a call-up for Pryce; as Goulding came into a re-jigged side on the wing, with Roberts moving to full-back.
Further injuries to Wigan’s back division (most notably to Amos Roberts) finally gave Karl his chance in round 13, when he lined up to face Huddersfield during the Magic Weekend at Murrayfield. He scored a try in Wigan’s 28-10 win, and has kept his place for every league game since. Even the return of Roberts this week, did not spell an end to Karl’s run in the team, with Pryce now being preferred to Goulding, despite Goulding claiming 17 tries in just 12 appearances this season. Karl himself who can now boast an equally enviable try scoring record, with 11 tries in seven games, including a hat-trick against Wakefield this weekend, to add to his previous two hat-tricks against Widnes (Challenge Cup round 5) and the Crusaders (Super League round 15).
As well as benefitting from injures to others, Karl has benefitted from the new coaching regime at Wigan, where form has triumphed over reputation, and he has retained his place after impressing both the coach, Michael Maguire, and the fans. The fans now get behind him, chant his name and applaud his efforts; a sure sign that he has finally come full circle and is a cult hero once again.