Rugby League: Edwards bucks a youthful trend

Dave Hadfield says the Broncos' new captain still has the old desire
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The Independent Online
AT THIRTY-TWO, Shaun Edwards is not quite the grand old man of Super League. Contrary to all predictions when the competition began three summers ago, there will be a little clutch of thirty-somethings in action when hostilities resume this afternoon, headed by the 35-year-old David Hulme at Salford and also including the hardy veteran Mark Forster, at Warrington.

The Hull prop Karl Harrison will also turn 35 this year. But none of them, and nobody else in the game, has achieved what Edwards has done, in terms either of individual or team honours. That makes it all the more remarkable that he should be approaching this season with all the hunger and restless energy of a young man still with things to prove.

The new London Broncos coach, Dan Stains, has made him captain - a role he has not held on a regular basis since his heyday at Wigan and one that is of much more than symbolic value to him. "It was probably always between him and Peter Gil," Stains said. "But I watched him at training and it became clearer and clearer to me what I should do. When I first arrived, I didn't understand him and what drives him, but I have never seen a competitor like him in my life."

The appointment means a lot more to Edwards than merely wearing an armband. "There's a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. I'm looking for a lot more consistency; I had some high spots last season, but some low ones as well," he said.

"I've got a coach who has given me a lot of freedom to express myself. The way Dan wants us to play is how we see it on the field, not to do everything the way we're told all the time." That means that Edwards will call the shots as captain and playmaker, which is the only sensible way of using his accumulated knowledge of the game. As Bradford and, to an extent, London have found out, if you just want someone to fill a shirt and fit in with a pre-ordained plan, you are probably better off getting a kid out of the reserves.

The way Edwards has trained the house down with the Broncos this winter suggests that he wants to depart the professional game, in which he has spent half his lifetime, with one last big, memorable season. Unlike a lot of players, Edwards is keenly conscious of his place in rugby league history. He wore the No 47 shirt last year because that was the number of tries he scored in his most prolific season at Wigan and fizzling out or fading away quietly would irritate him for the rest of his days.

But he is not approaching the 1999 season as if it will be his swansong, although "every game could be your last", as he said. "It's such a precarious job, but one that you appreciate more as you get older."

As a man with strong religious and political views, Edwards has always compared and contrasted his lot with that of working men in less lucrative occupations, once memorably snorting: "Pressure? I don't feel any pressure. When you're out of work with children to feed, that's pressure."

He also brings an historical awareness to his analysis of the modern player's good fortune. "When you compare what we have got with the old boys of the Fifties and Sixties who had to go down the pit for a shift and come out to train and play, we're blessed," he said. Any reading of Edwards' character that concentrates solely on the arrogance of which he has sometimes been accused has wilfully ignored that sort of sentiment.

This week, Edwards told the man he still calls "Coach Monie" (the Wigan coach, John Monie) that it had taken him until now to get over leaving Wigan. There was a stage last year when he was angling for a return, but now at last he seems willing to get on with the rest of his life. That could be bad news for London's opponents, starting today with Huddersfield and his old understudy, Bobbie Goulding, as the Broncos try to make up for the disappointments of last season.

"Every team I've played for I've been captain, so it's not a new experience for me. But I've already learned a lot about leadership from Dan," Edwards said. "The main thing is that you've got to worry first and foremost about your own game. Get that right and the rest will follow." The Broncos could follow Edwards to good effect this season as he finally puts Wigan behind him. There is still a connection with his home-town club, however. His 16-year-old brother, Billy-Joe, signed on at Central Park last week.

"He's in with a chance of being a good one. If you want to be a good player badly enough you're in with a chance and he's very, very dedicated - more dedicated than I was at his age." We have been warned.

BOYS TO MEN: Super League's coming heroes


Club: Bradford Age: 17

Tall, rangy and elegant, Pryce is a natural athlete who could have opted for either rugby union or League football, but chose instead the game that runs in his family. Pryce enjoyed a taste of first-team rugby last year and, even though he is faced with the daunting task of fighting his way past the Paul brothers to earn a place in the side, he will show more glimpses of his potential as a high-class stand-off this time.


Castleford, 20

A versatile, confident young player who will benefit this year from being used primarily in his best position of stand-off. His wonderful all-round kicking game, and boundless imagination near the line make him a definite Great Britain prospect this autumn.


Gateshead, 22

Older than most of the players in this list, but very young in terms of experience, the Irish winger is raw, wild and full of hunger and enthusiasm. Given a chance to learn on the job, he could be the only non-Australian to hold down a first-team place at the new franchise.


Halifax, 23

Strong young prop who is due to come into his own this season, putting a healthy degree of pressure on the veteran front-rowers, Paul Broadbent and Kelvin Skerrett. Gets a good ball away and could emerge as an international prospect.


Huddersfield, 21

Missed most of last season with a mystery illness, but the potential he showed before - plus the coaching of Malcolm Reilly - could see him make up for lost time this year. Restored to full vigour, he can trouble the best defences.


Hull, 20

Represents a real risk for Hull, because of his appalling disciplinary record, but there is great ability there beneath the dodgy temperament. If he can get on to the field and stay there, Roberts has the size, speed and ball-skills to make an outstanding loose forward.


Leeds, 18

Leeds have a tremendous crop of young players waiting in the wings at the moment, but Sinfield is clearly the pick of them. Even at his tender age, he has just about everything you could want from a play-making stand- off or loose forward. Will force his way into the picture this year.


London, 19

One of the young southern-based players on whom the Broncos' long-term future must rest. Jennings can play at stand-off, back row or full-back and has the range of skills and depth of determination to make his mark amid the club's array of Australians.


St Helens, 20

The big, strapping winger or centre has already impressed his new coach, Ellery Hanley, enough to earn a starting place ahead of more experienced players. Genuine pace and steadily increasing power make him a dangerous strike player.


Salford, 20

Did well at hooker when pitch-forked into a poor Salford side last season, he should benefit from having better players around him in the pack this time. Creative dummy half and strong defender, which takes care of the two main requirements for his role.


Sheffield, 18

Exciting young prospect anywhere in the backs, with real speed and flair at his disposal. The Eagles' coaching staff are aware of the need to keep his feet on the ground. If they succeed, he should come through strongly in 1999.


Warrington, 20

Already an experienced first-team player in his teens, Briers' progress should be accelerated in an improving Warrington team this time. An adventurous runner who is stronger than he looks, he is also a formidable kicker, and he might not be that far short of Test class by the end of the year.


Wakefield, 21

A rarity at Trinity in being retained from last year's First Division title-winning side, Holland is a resourceful full-back capable of playing at the highest level. He can count on being busy and getting plenty of chances to show his tackling ability.


Wigan, 17

Extremely lively and capable young hooker who, with Jon Clarke in jail, will be needed in the first team squad this season. John Monie will pick his matches for him, but Smith will be capable of looking after himself against the big boys.