St Helens suspend 'shocked' Millward

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The Independent Online

St Helens have plunged into another of their cataclysms by suspending Ian Millward, the most successful coach in the club's history.

Saints players were told yesterday that Millward, under whom they have won two Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and a World Club Challenge, had been suspended pending a disciplinary hearing. The club's chief executive, Sean McGuire, declined to be specific about what Millward is supposed to have done, but said that it was "sufficiently serious to have suspended him. Things happen and certain consequences flow from them".

Although McGuire said that Millward was under investigation purely over matters arising out of this season, he has rarely been far from controversy during the five years at Knowsley Road that make him the longest-serving coach in Super League.

He caused fury in 2002 by fielding a deliberately weakened team at Bradford and a repeat of that ploy last year led to two players, Sean Long and Martin Gleeson, serving long suspensions for betting against their team and to Gleeson being sold to Warrington.

This season, Millward has been fined for leaving the technical area during a Challenge Cup tie at Huddersfield and is still under investigation by the Rugby League for comments made after last week's home game against Bradford.

He was also involved in angry scenes with a club official at Warrington after a match there in March. In the absence of evidence of any single incident that could cost him his job, the picture is of a cumulative pattern of behaviour that could embarrass the club.

The solicitor Richard Cramer, who is representing Millward, said that Millward was "shocked and devastated" by the club's decision to suspend him on full pay. "He intends to vigorously contest the allegations," Cramer said. "He has two and a half years left on his contract and intends to co-operate fully with the disciplinary proceedings and return to his duties in readiness for the Challenge Cup tie against York on Friday."

That is not the club's intention. Even though McGuire said that they were keen to go through the disciplinary process as quickly as possible, Millward's assistant, Dave Rotheram, has been put in charge for tomorrow's visit of the National League Two side.

"It's what I've prepared for all my coaching career," the former London Broncos No 2 said. "Being a head coach is everyone's ultimate ambition and, if he's ill or suspended, the next man steps up."

Saints players, nine of whom were named in Great Britain's squad this week, were told of the suspension by their chairman, Eamonn McManus, yesterday.

"It was a complete shock," their captain, Paul Sculthorpe, said. "But what we have to do is look after things on the rugby field."

The Saints prop Keith Mason said the news was "a bolt from the blue", and said Millward still enjoyed the support of the players. "It will be our loss," he said.

Millward's record at Saints suggests that loss could be considerable. Brought in from Leigh in controversial circumstances after the sacking of Ellery Hanley in 2000, he won over restive fans.

Saints won Super League that year and the Challenge Cup and world club crown the following season, and they were champions again in 2002 and won the cup again last year.

This season, they are second in the table behind Leeds. Although the Australian can be abrasive, there is simply no denying his effectiveness as a coach.

That means that he is unlikely to be out of a job for long. Either a Super League club will grab him, or he will be lured back to Australia, where he is tipped to coach St George-Illawarra.

If Saints go through with sacking him, they will have trouble finding a credible replacement, although Jon Sharp is doing a good job as coach of Huddersfield.

One bigger name who could be available is the former Australian Test coach, Chris Anderson. He is leaving the Newport-Gwent Dragons this summer as a cost-cutting measure.

Anyone who was to take over, however, would struggle to match Millward's on-field success - or his flair for attracting headlines.