SADDLEWORTH teenagers Zach Eckersley and Tom Whitehead have both been handed their Betfred Super League debuts as they fulfilled dreams of playing professional rugby league.
Zach, 18, was one of seven youngsters called up by Wigan Warriors for their 38-28 defeat at Hull KR.
And Tom, 19, was also a replacement for Warrington Wolves coming off the bench to feature in a 32-14 victory at Salford Red Devils.
Springhead-based Zach is following in the footsteps of his father Chris, 47, who was also a professional rugby league player who had 12 months in the academy at Wigan and had two spells at Oldham RL and four years at Warrington Wolves.
Chris, a pacy winger who was the league’s leading try scorer in his last season with Oldham, was never a full-time pro and quit the game aged 24 to concentrate on his day job.
Indeed, Zach is the third generation of rugby players in the family as both grandfathers also played the game.
Graham Eckersley, 75, was a speedy winger and legend at Oldham Rugby Union Club while Peter ‘Chippy’ Moore starred for Saddleworth Rangers where he is held in high esteem.
Zach began playing rugby at Waterhead Warriors aged six and only moved to Saddleworth Rangers for 12 months at Under-15s as Warriors did not have a team at that age group.
He had already been begun a scholarship with Wigan where he has been since the age of 14.
Zach admitted the first-team call came as a surprise as he has missed half the season – 15 and seven weeks respectively – with ligament injuries in both ankles.
“It was my target at the start of the season to make my first-team debut but, because of the injuries, I thought it would be challenging,” he explained.
Zach’s debut came in his favourite position at centre – he has also played most of the season at full back and has also appeared occasionally on the wing like his father and grandfather.
Looking back on his 18 minutes of action, he said: “It is what I had been working years for that moment.
“On the morning of the match there was the presentation of my shirt with my family present. Then the nerves kicked in and I thought this is for real.
“The game was a lot more intense and faster than when I play for the U18 academy side and reserves.”
Zach added he has trained with the first team for the second half of the season and the senior players have been supportive.
“They have all once been in my position and they have helped me adjust to what was a big step up. It has been about getting used to that environment.”
Zach also has specialised goal kicking coaching independently from former professional Joe Ford to enhance his career and sometimes George Ford joins them for sessions on Churchill Playing Fields.
Zach, a former pupil at Springhead Infants, Knowsley Juniors, Saddleworth School and Oldham Sixth Form College, was an all-round sportsman.
Before rugby became his focus, Zach played football for Saddleworth 3Ds and Springhead FC and was a sprinter for Oldham and Royton Harriers and represented Oldham and Greater Manchester schools.
Again he was following his father as Chris was once an English schools’ 100m sprint finalist and ranked sixth in the country in his age group.
Both father and son were coached at Harriers with Karen and Steve Williams with Chris reckoning Zach is the speediest of the three generations.
The lives of Zach and Tom, also from Springhead, have run in parallel as they both attended Saddleworth School.
“Tom was in the year above me at Saddleworth School, but I knew him. He also lives next door to my grandparents,” he said.
Tom’s Super League debut also came as a surprise as he, too, has had an injury-interrupted season.
It is only three months since he had an operation on an ankle ligament injury and was recently sent out on loan to Rochdale Hornets where he played two games.
Tom, who began playing for Saddleworth Rangers aged eight having been raised on Shaw Hall Bank Road, made his debut at loose forward.
On the opposing side was another former Rangers’ player as James Greenwood was returning after injury.
And Rangers’ U7s were involved in a curtain-raiser game before the Super League match to provide even more local interest.
The Wolves players left for an end-of-season trip to Spain soon after the game.
Father John described Tom as “buzzing” after he was told he was making his debut on the Wednesday before the Saturday game.
“Tom was as nervous as hell, but his team-mate Josh Thewlis helped him as they car share,” he said.
Thewlis, the 20-year-old from Grasscroft, is now an established first-team player for Wolves.
John also paid tribute to everybody who has helped Tom on his long journey from volunteer coaches at grassroots level to parents and family.
He singled out Wes Rogers, a former professional, who also produced a junior side that saw Fenton Rogers, Ben Killen and Joe Howe all sign for Huddersfield Giants.
“Wes has been there in the game and done it, and a big shout should go to him as he changed the culture of the club in terms of discipline,” he said.
“And the moral of rugby league is that if you work hard, you get your rewards.”
Tom, a former pupil at Friezland Primary and Saddleworth School, last year signed a four-year professional contract with Wolves, a measure of how highly he is regarded.
Like Zach, Tom was also a sporting all-rounder. He played junior cricket for Uppermill, badminton in the Saddleworth Village Olympics and basketball and swimming before having to make a choice of which sport to pursue.