Every player in Super League has to prove himself over the course of the new season that started at the weekend, but for no one does the process start as close to home as for Paul Deacon.
Deacon was the incumbent Great Britain scrum-half surprisingly left out of the Tri-Nations squad last autumn by Brian Noble, who also happens to be his club coach at the Bradford Bulls. As snubs go, it is one that could be taken personally, but Deacon has made a policy decision not to spend a season brooding about trying to show his boss that he got it wrong.
"I don't see it that way at all," he said. "I don't feel I've got to prove myself to anyone. I've just got to go out there again and try to keep improving."
Deacon played in all three Tests against Australia in 2003, but says that, while obviously disappointed, he was not traumatised by his omission from the Tri-Nations. He did, however, seek an explanation from Noble, for whom the delicate balance of coaching both club and country must have been particularly tricky when he named a Great Britain party the day after losing the Grand Final with the Bulls. "He just thought that other people had played better than I had over the year," he said. "I wasn't too downhearted about it, although I still felt I could have done a job."
Despite his slightly outdated Bradford nickname of "Baby-face", now updated to "The Baby-faced Assassin", Deacon is no emerging talent any more. He celebrated his 26th birthday playing in the Bulls' first game against Wakefield on Sunday and, physically and technically, should be approaching his prime. If he is to regain his Great Britain place he needs to assert himself this season.
"I'm not setting myself that as a target, but, if I play well for Bradford, it could follow," he said.
The chances would only be improved if St Helens' Sean Long, first choice in the Tri-Nations despite only playing a handful of games after his betting suspension, carries out his threat to retire from international rugby.
"People have talked about Sean and I being in competition for years, but the fact is that we're very different types of player," Deacon says.
Critics of Long's kicking game during the Tri-Nations often yearned for a tactical kicker of Deacon's calibre, but the Bradford half-back believes that is too black-and-white a reaction.
"The criticism of Great Britain's kicking during the Tri-Nations was a bit over the top," he said. "People don't understand how difficult the kicker's job is. It's hard to put in a good kick when you're not coming off a good set of six and you're 30 metres from your own try-line."
It is still hard to picture Deacon, with his long-range accuracy, finding the Australian full-back, Anthony Minichiello, quite as unerringly as Britain's kickers did in the final, but he refuses to make cheap capital out of it.
"I went back to being a fan for the Tri-Nations and I was as gutted as anyone when we got beaten in the final, even though I'd love to have been out there," he said.
If Deacon has the best kicking game in the country, what he lacks, compared with some of his rivals, is blinding pace.
"I've worked hard on it, but you're born with speed or you're not,' he said. "Look at Danny McGuire - he's lightning quick and he's been gifted with that. I've not been gifted with pace, but I've got other things about my game."
The Bulls will need Deacon to use his range of skills to the maximum if they are to reverse what was, ultimately, a disappointing year for them in 2004, not to mention a disappointing start to 2005 with defeat by Wakefield on Sunday. A year ago, they held all three major trophies - Super League, the Challenge Cup and the World Club Challenge - and now they have none of them.
Worse still, for many Bulls' supporters, two of them are in the possession of McGuire's Leeds, who successfully broke out of Bradford's shadows last season.
"It was particularly hard, losing a game like the Grand Final to your local rivals, but I have to admit that, over the season, Leeds deserved it," he said.
Bradford have already suffered one major setback with one of their main signings, Ryan Hudson, under a club suspension while the Rugby League investigates a drug-test result, but Deacon believes that two other newcomers could make a swift and positive impact.
"Andy Lynch has been really impressive in training and could bring a lot to the team with his ability to off-load," he said. "His stats with Castleford last season showed that he carried the ball more than anyone, so he's certainly got the fitness."
Deacon also likes the look of the Australian back-rower, Brad Meyers, an international not long ago but now trying to get his career back on course after slipping down the pecking order back home. "The thing I notice about him is that he's got really good feet for a big man," Deacon said.
With Hudson missing for the foreseeable future and Karl Pratt still recovering from another shoulder injury, Robbie Paul is likely to play hooker to Deacon's half-back, as he did for most of the Wakefield game.
"That's the way we've played in the trials and the way we've been running in training," Deacon said. There was, however, an interesting tactical variation in Noble's portfolio, with Deacon switching to dummy-half for much of the second half.
"It's an option, but one I don't want to use very often, because we need Paul as a very good scrum-half," says Noble, who denies ever having any doubts about how the player would react to being left out of the national squad. "He'll work twice as hard to get back in. I've already seen evidence of that and I'm confident he's going to have a big season."
Deacon refuses to let it dominate his thinking, but, if he can outshine the flashier players who might have a claim on the Great Britain No 7 shirt, he could spare his coach some heart-searching this autumn.Reuse content