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Amongst British Rugby League?s so-called media experts there seems to be a widely accepted view that, in last years? Ashes series, Great Britain showed that they were closing the gap with Australia and have a real chance of beating the Old Enemy in the forthcoming tri-nations tournament. That?s very reassuring to those of us fans who, ignorant of the finer points of RL, thought we had been walloped 3-0 by a third choice Aussie team brilliantly led by an hitherto little regarded one-legged cripple called Kimmorley. In just over six weeks the tri-nations competition gets underway. With the GB squad due to be announced in a few weeks, this post examines GB?s prospects for that series, asking: can we expect more of the same or are there any realistic reasons for optimism that GB might win or at least at least avoid another whitewash?
First a point I remorselessly bore people with: in terms of playing standards, I don?t think there is all that much difference between the top players in the ESL and the NRL, but the Australians have a huge advantage through having experienced high pressure representative football in the State of Origin Series. Following last year?s shambles when, under pressure from club chairmen, the originally much hyped 3 match Lancashire v Yorkshire series was reduced to one game (which Lancashire failed to take seriously and got stuffed), the concept has been abandoned entirely. The GB coach, therefore, will have to pick a squad without the benefit of any sort of trial match to indicate which players have a big match temperament.
On a more optimistic note, at last we are rid of the hapless coach, David Waite, who, after last season?s humiliation, has been rewarded with a promotion to the position of RFL performance director, or some such grandiose title. Although Waite?s past achievements at club level with the Dragons and his present work at junior level demand respect, he never seemed to come to terms with coaching an international side. There were three main criticisms: firstly, he just seemed to have just one game plan - six drives and an aimless kick - which he stuck to whatever happened; secondly, he kept picking his favourites when they were badly out of form, even if it meant playing them out of position, giving rise to last years? farce when, in the third test, GB had five club lock forwards on the field in various positions; and thirdly, he ignored the plethora of young talent emerging in the ESL, most of which spent last autumn playing relatively low-profile games for England ?A?.
Waite?s successor is Brian Noble, the Bradford Bulls coach. As a player, in the 1980s ?Nobby? Noble was a typical old-fashioned (i.e. equally mad and fearless) hooker with Bradford and GB. After serving his coaching apprenticeship at Bradford with Matthew Elliot, he has coached Bradford to every available domestic honour, including the destruction of Penrith in this year?s World Club Challenge. One of Noble?s great strengths is that he is a flexible tactical thinker who has shown with Bradford that he can adapt his tactics to different fixtures and to the state of the game. It is at least encouraging that, according to this week?s League Weekly, Noble has said Australia and New Zealand are two very different sides and each will require a different tactical approach.
So far, all Noble has said publicly about his squad is that there may be some well known names missing, which is perhaps a sign that the squad, to be announced the day after the Grand Final on 16th October, will be picked on form rather than on past reputations. His style at Bradford indicates that he is not afraid to introduce new faces into the team to keep the older ones from getting complacent.
And that?s about it. A coach who: a) is a clever tactical thinker, likely to have a game plan tailored to the occasion and a Plan B, or even Z, if things go wrong; b) will probably not rely on the same old players who have failed so often in the past but will pick the side on current form; and c) will use players in their specialist positions. These might not amount to any great grounds for optimism but, unfortunately, as far as I can see, within the scope of ?realistic reasons for optimism?, it?s all there is. I?d be only too grateful for more, better reasons.
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