Peter Gentle: Fighting an injury crisis – and history
Australian coach tells Dave Hadfield that seeking to end Hull's Challenge Cup final jinx in London is a 'wonderful distraction'
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Wednesday 21 August 2013
When Peter Gentle leads his team out into a wall of sound at Wembley on Saturday, it will be a far cry from his first experience of English rugby league. The Hull coach, whose side plays Wigan in the Challenge Cup final, first came to these shores in 1986 to play for the short-lived, shoe-string operation that was the Mansfield Marksmen.
"We didn't have many fans, but the ones we did have used to boo us onto the field," he recalls.
The young stand-off played 10 games for the Marksmen, between stints in his native Australia with Western Suburbs and St George. Despite missing the target more often than he hit it during his time at Mansfield, though, Gentle's brief stay in England had given him the taste to live and work here. So, when he was headhunted by Hull last year, from his job as assistant coach with Wests Tigers, he did not hesitate. "And we've loved it here, my wife and children included," he says.
Gentle will no doubt love it even more if he achieves the victory at Wembley that has eluded every Hull coach since the final moved to London in 1929. Like all his predecessors, the Australian has felt the weight of history on his back where Wembley is concerned. Hull have won at Cardiff and in a replay at Elland Road, but have never lifted the Cup on its biggest stage.
"People do talk about it in Hull, just like they do about the 1985 final against Wigan, which was probably the best-ever," he says.
That meeting 28 years ago lends this year's set-piece an extra frisson, but it is the present – and, just possibly, some twists and turns in the near future – that has concerned Gentle this week.
His side were magnificent in a 16-12 semi-final victory over Warrington, which few expected, but most of the news since then has been unsettling. There has been a positive plague of injuries in his back division, so much so that it has become impossible to guess how they will line up. Of his likely first-choice 17, Gentle has varying degrees of doubt over the availability of Shannon McDonnell, Tom Lineham, Ben Crooks, Kirk Yeaman and Joe Arundel.
Unlike some past Wembley coaches, Gentle will not keep a shirt warm for a borderline case to prove his fitness on the day of the match. Those gambles have rarely come off. Instead, he has ruled out anyone who could not get through the training session on Humberside on Tuesday.
He has also refused to be distracted by a story which has been circulating around the city of Kingston upon Hull, to the effect that, win, lose or draw at Wembley, Gentle will be sacked before next season.
The club's owner, Adam Pearson, is undeniably an impatient employer and Hull's current position of seventh in Super League is disappointing. But is it really credible that if the coach ends 84 years of Wembley frustration he will be shown the door?
"I don't know where that has come from, but I'm confident that there's nothing in it," Gentle says. "I have a very open, honest relationship with Adam Pearson and, if there was anything like that in his mind, he would have told me."
As far as one can judge, Hull's players would not welcome another change. England Knights' hooker Danny Houghton is typical of those who have thrived under Gentle's tutelage, hardly missing a game since the new coach arrived.
"He's definitely improved my game," Houghton says. "The obvious thing he has improved is our defence, but he has made us more creative as well."
That does not always show in Hull's return for time spent in opposition territory, or conversion of their chances, something that Houghton puts down to "trying too hard".
Gentle has another explanation. "Whether you like it or not, getting to the Challenge Cup final is a distraction," he says. "Don't get me wrong – it's a wonderful distraction, but a distraction all the same."
So is all the talk about history. "We have the chance to make our own history." Gentle says. "With [Hull boxer] Luke Campbell's gold at the Olympics and Hull City going back into the Premier League, this is a tremendous time for sport in our city. We want to play our part."
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