A Long road from exile to assault on the Tri-Nations

The Great Britain scrum-half is aiming to repay his coach's faith against Australia in today's final.
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The Independent Online

Sean Long did not enjoy last Saturday. He has, through his own fault, spent too long this year watching the game rather than playing it.

Sean Long did not enjoy last Saturday. He has, through his own fault, spent too long this year watching the game rather than playing it.

Long, who will be restored tonight to the scrum-half role as Great Britain try to beat Australia and win the Tri-Nations, spent three months at the end of the season fretting on the sidelines, much as he did when he was rested against New Zealand last weekend.

The reason was rather different. Along with his then team-mate, Martin Gleeson, he was suspended for placing bets against what he knew would be a weakened St Helens side at Bradford on Easter Monday.

Although his punishment hit him in the pocket, it was being banned from playing that really hurt. "Rugby league is very important to me. Taking that away is like taking my right arm. It's all I've done since being a kid - just playing rugby," he says.

Nor could he find much solace in being involved in training or on match days.

"I'm not a good watcher and most of the time I was training on my own. I didn't watch a game for six weeks. I spent a lot of time away from the game and away from the ground.

"That's when it dawns on you: 'What have I done?' When you love rugby league, you learn a lot about yourself when it's taken away and you're sitting on the sidelines even though you're fit." One thing he obviously stood to lose was his chance of playing in this tournament, but the Great Britain coach, Brian Noble, kept faith with him when many would have been inclined to write him out of the script.

"Nobby gave me a nod and said: 'Keep fit. I'm still thinking about playing you.' When he picked me ahead of others, like Paul Deacon, from his own club Bradford, that was massive. I want to thank him for that and repay him as much as I can."

Long has started to do that in this tournament. With just a handful of games for Saints under his belt at the end of the season, he was understandably rusty at first. "But the more I play, the better I feel. In the games I've played, I feel I've been getting better and better."

Which makes it all the more surprising that he should have had another enforced rest last week. Apart from making him distinctly jumpy about whether he would be selected for the final, he will probably never be able to watch a game again without sensing some echoes of his three-month exile.

There was a special reason for that at Hull last weekend, as his partner in crime, Gleeson, since sold to Warrington on the same principle used by teachers when separating the two naughtiest boys in the class, turned in a world-class performance.

It made Long think. "I turned to Paul Sculthorpe in the stand and said: 'Why have we sold him? He's the best centre in the world.'" Gradually, Long has pieced together a bit of cause and effect. "It was a good offer, but would we have let him go if he'd been playing at the time? I don't think so."

It all goes on the bill for that clumsy attempt to make a fast buck: Three months of his career; several thousand pounds in lost earnings; his best mate in the game.

That has to teach you a few home truths, but Long will probably never be a conventional role model. Like many of the great scrum-halves of the past, there is too much of the renegade about him for that. It is there in the way he plays the game, but it means that he can never be on his best behaviour for long.

The aftermath of the win over Australia two weeks ago was a case in point. Radio 5 wanted to interview him at 8.30 the following morning. Long agreed, but rather lost track of the arrangement during the night's celebrations.

The result was an interview for the connoisseur, with a hung-over Long grunting a few disjointed answers on a dodgy mobile phone.

"They probably think now that they shouldn't have phoned me that early in the morning. It sounded worse because I came on straight after Jason Robinson sounding so posh. He does not sound like he comes from Leeds any more, does he?"

Offers of a regular stint on the breakfast time show have not yet flooded in, but Long's occasional lapses in the PR field will be forgiven if he can contribute to a British victory at Elland Road today.

The signs have been good. He has been given licence to play his natural game, with all the enterprise and adventure that has so often made him a match-winner for Saints.

"I want to take the ball on as much as I can. That's my game, and I haven't had much of a chance to do that against Australia before because I've been injured or I've not been picked. But now, with the forwards we've got, such as Adrian Morley and Stuart Fielden, we're creating a platform that makes my job so easy."

Completing his rehabilitation by lifting the Tri-Nations trophy will not exactly be easy, but Sean Long can make up for lost time tonight. He is unlikely, however, to be giving any interviews early tomorrow morning.