Lack of quality thwarts Noble's efforts

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The Independent Online

Noble was only a spectator yesterday as Australia took on New Zealand in the final of the Tri-Nations at Elland Road.

Much as he would have loved his British team to be part of the big day, it was almost a relief to be able to put his feet up after this year's roller-coaster ride.

"Winning Super League with Bradford was the biggest achievement of my career and I haven't even had time to think about it," he said.

It was indeed a major effort for the Bulls to recover from a dreadful start to the year, steady the ship in mid-season and eventually develop an unstoppable momentum in the latter stages.

There were signs during Great Britain's victory over New Zealand two weeks ago that their Tri-Nations campaign might develop a similar rhythm.

It was not to be. Against Australia last Saturday, they missed too many beats. "I still say there's only a smidgen between us. On any given day, any of us can beat the others," Noble said.

"We just didn't make the improvement we needed for that game. There were far too many errors and the quality of our skills and decision-making wasn't good enough at the highest level."

Few would disagree with that. Where opinions diverge is over what can be done about it. The two most popular panaceas to emerge from the inevitable autopsy are suggestions that there must be fewer overseas players in the British game and that the 20/20 rule should be eased to encourage clubs to develop more of their own players.

Noble does not believe that reducing the imports would necessarily help. Mind you, he would be hard-pressed to argue differently; his Bradford team could contain as many as 11 next season.

That, he believes, is due to the shortage of British players of the right standard, who are thus in heavy demand and over-priced.

The 20/20 rule limits clubs to 20 players paid over £20,000 a season. It is intended to spread talent more evenly, but its critics believe that the regulation drives it out of the game completely, and would scrap it.

Noble would go further. He would exempt all the expense of developing and paying young players - even those who have reached the first team - from the salary cap, giving clubs an obvious incentive to concentrate on that side of their operation.

A lack of options in too many positions for the Great Britain team supports his contention that the United Kingdom is simply not producing enough elite players. "I've got every faith in the players in the squad, but I've just not got enough to pick from," he admitted.

British depth will be tested further next autumn with the confirmation that the Tri-Nations will be played in Australia and New Zealand. "I can't wait, and neither can the players," Noble said. No wonder; for all of them it will be the nearest thing to a tour that they have experienced.

It was touring that made Britain's great players what they were. The difference is that they rarely, if ever, had to play five Tests in five weeks, as Noble's men will have to do if they are to go one better than this year and reach a Tri-Nations final.