Waite in pursuit of Eriksson effect

Great Britain's rugby league coach has valuable inside knowledge of the leading Kangaroos
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The Independent Online

Two imported coaches of national sides are preparing to do battle this weekend against the countries of their birth. One is already a hero in his adopted land; the other is David Waite.

The quirk of the international sporting calendar that throws Waite's Great Britain rugby league squad together with Sven Goran Eriksson's England, not just on the same weekend, but at the same hotel, invites all sorts of comparisons.

"The parallels are there, but we are just one year into a nine- year plan," says Waite, wary of any suggestion that he could win hearts and minds as rapidly as the Swede has done.

"The answer to that is winning. That's the only answer in international sport." He can, he knows, only win over the critics the way Eriksson has done by achieving comparable results – and, in rugby league, that means beating Australia.

"We know the task," he says. "I'm very, very grateful to have a crack at it. I'm fortunate to be in the position to have a crack at the world's best."

Waite should know all there is to know about the excellence of the opposition in the series that starts at Huddersfield on Sunday. In a different place, at a different time, he had much to do with nurturing it.

As the coach in charge of developing young players at the Newcastle Knights, it was he who got a 15-year-old Andrew Johns the treatment he needed when he was having trouble running. Ironically, Johns will be running the show from scrum-half for Australia on Sunday. "An absolutely marvellous player; the most influential player in the game today," says Waite.

Other Australians, like Adam MacDougal and Matthew Gidley, passed through his hands at Newcastle, while Trent Barrett was his protégé in the St George-Illawarra side he guided to the Grand Final a little over two years ago. Even Jason Ryles, the young prop who emerged from nowhere last season, is well known to Waite, who saw him making his way through the lower grades at the same club.

No coach from a purely British background could have the same depth of knowledge about the opposition; and seeing players like Johns and Barrett develop has, he says, helped him enormously in grooming young British players like Richard Horne for a possible role in this series.

No one seriously doubts Waite's knowledge, but it is only part of the story. Where the doubters, including some extensively quoted former Great Britain coaches, place a question mark is over the ability of an Australian – and a cool, cerebral Australian, at that – to stir the passions of a British squad.

"If you're going to rely on passion alone, you're in trouble," he says. "And people forget that I've got three Great Britain captains from different eras in the dressing-room to look after that."

Is that the way it will work? The detached, somewhat sardonic Waite looking after the head, while the likes of Andy Farrell and the assistant coach, Brian Noble, attend to the heart? Not that simple, says Waite, who says his commitment to the job is as intense as if he had been born here. In fact, he is a second generation Pom; his 80-year-old father, Ralph, a native of Lincoln, will be watching on television in Australia, and Waite often refers to that bloodline.

"I know he will be proud when he sees me leading out a Great Britain team. If he's happy and comfortable with that, then I'm happy and comfortable."

How comfortable Waite will be at full-time on Sunday depends on how well his adopted country can contain his original one, studded with talent that he helped to groom.

"Losing players like Keiron Cunningham has been a big blow. They have the two best players in the world in Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer and we have lost some of ours."

Waite does not expect the "on-off" nature of Australia's preparations to affect them when they get on to the field. "They're the best rugby league team in the world; their preparation will reflect that and they will be ready. Anyone who thinks they will be under-prepared is fooling themselves. We're more concerned about our own preparation – mentally and physically."

Waite has coached against Australia's Chris Anderson enough – including the Grand Final defeat by the Melbourne Storm in 1999 – to know what to expect. It is a big leap from that to being able to stop them getting into their rhythm, however, and – fair or not – the concept of bringing in an outsider will be judged by how Great Britain fare at the McAlpine Stadium.

A win will take Waite straight into Eriksson territory and no one will worry any more over whether he knows the words to the national anthem.

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