Withers steps back and spots a brighter future

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The Independent Online

Bradford have, in the main, managed to avoid misfortune through injury this season, but the one taste they did have proved a blessing in disguise for Michael Withers.

The Bulls, who have already booked their place in the Tetley's Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford next Saturday, lost their regular full-back, Stuart Spruce, before the Challenge Cup final, but Withers has been such a success in the role that the former Great Britain No 1 has not been missed. Mainly a winger or centre in his first two seasons with the club, Withers has slotted in at full-back superbly.

"It was unfortunate for Stuart, but that's part of the game and it's worked out well for me," he said. "I'd only played there a few times in Australia. I used to stand in for Tim Brasher at Balmain and he was the best in the business, so I learnt a lot about positional play from him."

As the Bulls' last line, Withers has not only been defensively sound, he has also found full scope for his attacking instincts. His 22 tries in the regular Super League season are second only to the 27 from another full-back, Wigan's Kris Radlinski. "A lot of those have come from good team play, a lot of them from following up kicks. But I've enjoyed it; I'm able to roam anywhere I want."

If Withers has been the beneficiary of one serious injury, he believes that the rarity of such setbacks has been no accident this season. "I think we've got the balance between work and rest just about right. Brian Noble knows when to ease up on us."

Finishing top of Super League has given Bradford further time for recuperation during the play-off series. They had the first weekend off and, having beaten Wigan last Sunday, had a free fortnight to look forward to going into the Grand Final. "I know some people think it's a disadvantage and that you can go into the match a bit underdone. I know Wigan's coach, Stuart Raper, said that going into last week's match. But if you offered the week off to anyone at this stage of the season, they'd accept it with open arms. We're all carrying knocks by this point, and the week off has to help."

The other theory about finals is that Bradford will always choke on the big day – and Withers admits that there is some evidence to support that line of thinking. "We played Saints in the 1999 Grand Final and managed to lose even though we did enough to win that match; in the Challenge Cup final this year, we just didn't play at all.

"But we are a more relaxed camp under Brian. Matthew Elliott was all rugby league, 24 hours a day, seven days a week – very intense. Brian has brought in a self-belief. Everyone's good-natured with each other. He likes to have a laugh, but we know from him when it's time to get serious."

Noble was being serious, however, when he had a word in Withers' ear in his capacity as assistant coach to David Waite in the Great Britain set-up earlier this year. Grandparental qualification enabled Withers, who is Sydney-born and bred, to play for Ireland in last year's World Cup, which in turn would actually make him eligible him to play for Great Britain against his homeland next month. Noble, on Waite's behalf, asked him how he would feel about doing so. "At the time, I wasn't sure what I was doing – whether I was staying in Britain or going back to Australia – so I said I would give it a miss."

Now, though, Withers has signed a new, two-year contract, and his answer would not necessarily be the same if he was asked again. "Some time in the future, if they had some injuries, I would love to play. It's only a matter of time before some Australian-born player does. It happens in other sports, and the Aussies are bringing over a couple of Fijian players – so it's no big deal."

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