McRae starts removals business

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The Independent Online
There will be a hollow feeling for Shaun McRae this evening, when a match that should have had a big bearing on the destination of the Stones Super League Championship will instead be just another marker on the plunging graph of St Helens' decline over the last two months.

The Saints coach has seen his side go into a tail-spin since they won the Challenge Cup final in May. McRae admits that their title is long gone - and that today's opponents, the Bradford Bulls, richly deserve to inherit it. "It hasn't gone this week," he said after Saints' 14-12 defeat at Sheffield Eagles on Wednesday. "It went about six weeks ago."

There are several reasons for Saints' dramatic loss of form this season. There is the extra pressure that comes with being the side everyone wants to beat and there have been a spate of injuries, particularly among match- winners such as Alan Hunte, Paul Newlove and Bobbie Goulding.

"But I can't keep on blaming injuries," McRae said. "Those injuries have brought players into the team who have been knocking my door down telling me that they should be there. What it has proved is that they are not as good as they think they are."

Defeats in domestic competition, coupled with the humbling experience of three heavy losses in the World Club Championship, have made McRae question the resources at his disposal. "They claim to be full-time professionals, but they've a long way to go, some of these guys. My problem is that I can't keep replacing them, because I don't have the replacements. It's time to make a move for a few players and shift some of the ones that are here. Some of them have been around the place too long."

McRae will have been talking to his board this week about making funds available because the unavoidable conclusion from this season is that, unlike Bradford, Saints do not have a squad of sufficient depth and quality. For now, though, the only immediate option McRae has is to shuffle the cards he has. "All I can do for the rest of the season is experiment and try some players in some different roles."

If he can get that right, Saints could yet achieve a top-four finish, which would give them a fighting chance in the Premiership and a fixture against the Australian tourists in November. If not, Saints' deterioration after the double glories of last year will look precipitous. And that would raise inevitable questions about McRae's own future. He still has massive credit in the bank at St Helens, so it is inconceivable that they would imagine themselves better off with another coach.

But he is sounding disillusioned which, allied to speculation about a return to his native Australia, adds an extra element of uncertainty to the Knowsley Road scene. "I can only say what I've said before," he said of the rumours. "I'm happy to be at Saints until my contract ends after the 1998 season. But, if someone came along with an offer....well, I'm in the same position as a player. But I must stress that I'm still happy at St Helens."

Perhaps - but not as happy as he could be and nothing like as happy as he was at the start of May.