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Noble gets to grips with an image
For the second time in less than a year, Brian Noble tonight stands on the threshold of the greatest achievement of his career, one he has been working towards for more than two decades: ending Australia's domination of international rugby league. The Lions coach is desperate to showcase the British game by taking full revenge for last year's rout by Australia.
After last Saturday's record-breaking 38-12 win over New Zealand, Noble's Great Britain team have the opportunity at Hull's KC Stadium to evict the Kangaroos from the Tri-Nations series, needing to win by eight points to set up a final against the Kiwis at Elland Road next weekend.
But after falling so spectacularly on their faces in last year's final against Australia, the coach and his players are determined not to be distracted by the historic prize on offer. One of the main purposes of arranging a mid-season training camp in Bath was to explore the reasons for that 44-4 humiliation and ensure that if another chance cropped up to end Australia's 32-year superiority, the Lions would be better prepared.
"We got every member of the squad up and asked them why they thought it happened," Noble said. "Words like over-confident and overawed came up. 'Thought we'd done enough', 'just had to show up to win', 'expectancy too high'. These are sentences we kept little bites of.
"All the media were saying GB by six, by 10, by 12. You start thinking about winning, instead of recognising we might be fuelling somebody's fire here. The reality was, we weren't ready to start a game, because in the first 40 minutes we did things we hadn't done in the previous four games. Maybe because of our mood, maybe because of what we expected of ourselves, we forgot we were playing the best team in the world. We are again this weekend, and we won't forget again. Our whole focus will be on performance."
Noble knows full well if Britain fail to win by at least three points, they will not even reach the final, prompting another bout of soul-searching and questions about his ability to combine the Lions job with club commitments at Bradford. "Whenever we lose it's 'He's knackered', and this time they'll say 'He's been staring down the barrel for 12 weeks with Bradford'," the former policeman concedes, referring to the Bulls' unlikely late-season surge to a fifth consecutive grand final under his coaching and a third Super League title.
"It's a pertinent question, how long can you keep doing both, and it's been a concern of mine for a number of years. I've been doing this six years non-stop with the time I was assistant to David Waite as well. It's tough but it's about energy and enthusiasm, and I've still got it."
Driving Noble to undertake a double role so gruelling it borders on the masochistic is his passionate desire to gain more national and international respect for the improvement in British rugby league since the dark days of the 70s and early 80s. He suffered a 3-0 Ashes whitewash as the youngest Lions captain in 1984 - a record since usurped by Andy Farrell - although the 23-year-old's leadership on tour earned nothing but praise.
"I remember those 13 weeks like yesterday," he said. "It was one of the best times of my life and that's my ambition now for Great Britain, to tour again, because we've improved our playing standards to the extent we're competitive abroad and it's a sellable commodity.
"The nucleus of this team have carried the flag over here for so long and they deserve that touring experience. I jumped on board the international set-up because I had a firm belief we were better than we were being made out to be. I feel a huge responsibility to the British game."
Noble recently extended his Bradford contract until the end of the 2007 season, with a decision expected soon on whether he will lead the England team in the 2008 World Cup. "Who knows what's around the corner?" he says. "I get the people I most respect around me and I'll make some decisions. They may surprise a few."
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Andy Wilson is the rugby league writer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers. We thank them in re-producing Andy's article here.