A man for the Saint hearted; close-up; Shaun McRae

St Helens are one win away from ending the Wigan era. Dave Hadfield looks at the coach who found that bit extra
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The Independent Online
IF ST HELENS beat Warrington tomorrow to complete a double of the Challenge Cup and the Super League title, and so end the remarkable 10-year period of Wigan's domination, Shaun McRae will think back to a day on a training pitch in Canberra 14 years ago.

McRae's playing career ended in his early twenties when he "went down in a screaming heap and had to be carried off to hospital" with knee and ankle damage while trying out for the newly formed Canberra Raiders. Like others cut down in similarly premature fashion, he is making up as a coach for what he lost as a player.

A Saints victory tomorrow would go a long way towards repairing the hurt because the championship - even more than the cup - is the trophy McRae wants. "The Challenge Cup, for all its tradition, is based on an element of luck. The championship measures consistency, your week-in-week-out performances."

It was consistency that McRae was hired to graft on to Saints' personality this season. It has, for a decade or more, been an alien concept at Knowsley Road, where Saints, brilliant one minute, inept the next, have traditionally failed to match the application that has brought Wigan an endless string or honours. "We have been known as the entertainers, but also as the bridesmaids," McRae said. "Before that could be changed, the psychology of the team had to change."

Saints have lost that unwanted bridesmaid image. But, even amid this season's success, there is a vociferous section of their support that feels they have lost their right to be called the entertainers. That is one accusation that will ruffle McRae's affability. "I can always accept criticism if it's justified, but when people say that, it's just based on ignorance of the game. You have to appreciate the value of patience. You can't throw the ball around every time, but a few of the fans wouldn't be happy if they won a million in the lottery. They would be asking why it wasn't four million, or five."

The name of Shaun McRae put some backs up before he even arrived in England because of the manner of his predecessor's departure. Eric Hughes had been a popular and successful St Helens coach, under whom discernible progress had been made, so to kick him out and bring in an unknown Australian seemed harsh and unjustified to many - including some Saints players. "I arrived under controversial circumstances, with people asking: 'Who is this Shaun McRae bloke?' " the coach admitted. "But it wasn't any of my doing."

Even now, after all McRae's achievements in his first season, there are those who will belittle his success by claiming that it has been achieved with the team that Hughes built. There is an element of truth in this because McRae has brought in just one new player - a fellow Australian, Derek McVey. "I think Eric Hughes did a marvellous job here," McRae said.

"I have no difficulty in acknowledging that. And, for a while, it was perceived as being Eric Hughes's team, but I think we broke through that at Wembley [in the Challenge Cup final win]. I was brought in to get something extra out of the players - just as somebody could come in after me and get more out of them again. I hope that when I go I will get the same sort of loyalty that Eric got from the fans and the players."

Whatever misgivings the players had at the time, they are now likely to admit that McRae has added that something extra. "We have won matches that we would have lost last season," says one. "I don't know why it is and I don't want to run down Eric, but perhaps we're more frightened of losing under Shaun."

McRae says that the main change that he has instituted is to make the players believe more in their ability and in the necessity of playing for the full 80 minutes. "That and patience. It's very easy to sit on the sidelines and say that the ball should be moved out all the time, but you have to give some credit to the sides we play. I know how we prepare when we are playing Wigan and, now that we are on top, they do the same against us."

Saints supporters who were unimpressed by the name would not have had to dig very deep to unearth McRae's credentials. As assistant coach to Canberra throughout their rise from callow newcomers to the top side in Australia, and as assistant to Bob Fulton with the national side, he had established himself as the game's best No 2. What was less certain was how he would fare as the main man. All the evidence of the past few weeks is that he can handle pressure and that his players pick up his calm confidence and take it on to the pitch with them.

"It is the players I'll be most happy for if we beat Warrington," he said. "They are the ones who get belted week after week, who put their bodies on the line every game. It will be a great achievement for me as a coach, of course, as well as a tremendous boost for the town."

Although McRae claims not to be obsessed with displacing Wigan, he knows the town is. More than that, ending their run of championships, at seven, in the first year of Super League would look suspiciously like the end of an era - one of almost constant frustration for Saints.

McRae knows all about dynasties. He was born in the St George area of Sydney in 1959, just as that side was getting into its stride in a run of 11 consecutive Premierships. "I was a little too young to take it in at the time, but I know the effect that had on the game in Australia."

Although he always regarded himself as a better cricketer than rugby league player, McRae - like Ray Lindwall 30 years earlier - played both sports for St George, in his case while studying for a physical education degree. His first teaching job took him to Canberra - and to the end of his dreams of a significant playing career - but there is a splendid irony in the prospect of a St George man ending Wigan's period of dominance.

And here is another one. Who were the last club to dump their English coaches as unceremoniously as Saints did Hughes? Wigan, almost exactly 10 years ago, when the arrival of the New Zealander Graham Lowe triggered their takeover of the commanding heights of the English game. No one, least of all McRae, is claiming the birth of a St Helens dynasty. But if Saints finish the job tomorrow, it may be seen in the long term as a turning point not just for the club but for a code in which honours have been monopolised to an unhealthy degree. For that little bit extra that he has added to Saints this season, the game here has much to thank him.

How the Saints fared in Wigan's wonder years

1984-5: Coach: Billy Benyon. Runners-up in championship. Wigan third and Challenge Cup winners.

1985-6: Benyon replaced by Alex Murphy, November 1985. Third. Wigan second and Regal Trophy winners.

1986-7: Runners-up in championship and Challenge Cup finalists. Wigan champions and Regal Trophy winners.

1987-8: Runners-up in championship and Regal Trophy winners. Wigan third, Challenge Cup winners and World Club champions.

1988-9: Seventh and Challenge Cup finalists. Wigan runners-up, Challenge Cup and Regal Trophy winners.

1989-90: Murphy replaced by Mike McLennan, February 1990. Fifth. Wigan champions, Challenge Cup and Regal Trophy winners.

1990-1: Sixth and Challenge Cup finalists. Wigan champions and Challenge Cup winners.

1991-2: Runners-up. Wigan champions, Challenge Cup winners and World Club champions.

1992-3: Runners-up. Wigan champions, Challenge Cup and Regal Trophy winners.

1993-4: McClennan replaced by Eric Hughes, January 1994. Eighth. Wigan champions, Challenge Cup winners, Regal Trophy finalists, World Club champions.

1994-5: Fourth. Wigan champions, Challenge Cup and Regal Trophy winners.

1995-6: Hughes replaced by Shaun McRae, January 1996. Fourth, Challenge Cup winners, Regal Trophy finalists. Wigan champions, Regal Trophy winners.

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