Millward's appeal: 'Let's back Britain'

'Too many overseas players are hurting the game,' says Wigan's Australian coach
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The Independent Online

Advocates of British coaching talent will have found it depressing this week that Castleford should have chosen an Australian to lead them back into Super League next season.

Terry Matterson might have a British passport and have represented Scotland, but he is a straight-down-the-line product of Australia, with a distinguished playing record with the Brisbane Broncos. He has practical experience of the game in this country, having spent three years with what was then Brisbane's British subsidiary, the London Broncos. Since sacking Dave Woods - another Australian - every potential new coach with whom Cas have been linked has been either an Australian or a New Zealander.

They must hope Matterson turns out to be as inspired a choice as Stuart Raper, who was relatively unknown when he arrived but briefly made them a top-five side. Like him, Matterson will be able to tap into high-quality imports, and we can expect that recruitment for the first season back in Super League will now begin.There, in fact, lies the rub. It is not, whatever up-and-coming English coaches might think, the number of coaches from overseas that is the problem. Matterson takes the Super League tally for next season to five out of 12, and it is not long since they had a complete monopoly.

The problem, as one of their number, Wigan's Ian Millward, observed last week, is the quantity of overseas players. One of the handicaps Great Britain have had in the Tri-Nations is that, even by comparison with New Zealand, which has a much more dominant rugby union culture to compete with, they do not have enough players of the required standard to select from.

The problem is particularly acute in decision-making positions, where too many clubs take the easy option of bringing in a ready-made journeyman from the southern hemisphere. "Great Britain cannot generate half-backs who are good enough at Test level," Millward said. "There should be a maximum of three overseas players at each club, and that way you can bring youngsters through. Last season there were only five clubs with British half-backs. The pool of talent isn't big enough."

Officially, the overseas quota stands at three already, but there are so many loopholes, through Kolpak and other exemptions, that this number is meaningless. Next seasonBradford will have 11 overseas players, if you count the Torquay-born but Australian-raised Ian Henderson. Wakefield and London will not be far behind, andWigan themselves will have eight imports, with five "loopholes" on top of their three quota players.

The Rugby League cannot legally place a block on players who are entitled to work here, but other sports have managed to reach internal agreements to limit the numbers of overseas players they will employ.

"What needs to happen is all the chairmen to get into a room and reach a gentleman's agreement," Millward said. He knows enough chairmen to know how likely that is to happen.

The whole debate is full of ironies. Wigan have been as guilty as anyone of discarding young British talent in favour of ready-made imports: Luke Robinson, now with Salford, is a good example. Year after year, it is the conventional wisdom that there is a wealth of talent coming through the Academy system, but Wigan are as good a case study as any of how faltering that progress can be. James Coyle, Bob Beswick and David Allen have all been rated among the best in their age-group, but all three will be outside Super League - with Widnes - next season.

There is a little twist on the coaching front at Wigan as well. Not long ago, Denis Betts was regarded as one of the brightest of emerging British coaches. Mike Gregory's illness meant that he was promoted to head coach well ahead of schedule, but even when he was demoted to make way for Millward, his future did not look too bleak.

An extraordinary Wigan press release, however, has described Betts as "refusing" to take on responsibility for the club's Under-21 side. That job will be done by another Australian, Andrew Farrar, who is now clearly Millward's No 2. Betts is, equally clearly, on his way out. It might be a situation of his own making, but it further reduces the English flavour that Millward is keen to encourage.

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