Rugby League: First Dan on a journey of fulfilment

Challenge Cup final: Stains has built Broncos in his own tough image for the biggest day of their lives
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The Independent Online
IT HAS taken many coaches a lifetime to reach a Wembley cup final. Dan Stains has done it in six months; from stepping off the plane to leading out the little big men of the London Broncos against Leeds in rugby league's showpiece on Saturday. He would call it destiny and cast his mind back to an October weekend when a little voice held him back whenever he reached for the phone to fill the vacant head coach's job at the Broncos. He had won clearance from his wife, had the club's number in his hand, but still he didn't make the call which 12,000 miles away Tony Rea, the Broncos' chief executive, was expecting.

"It was a bit of ego, I suppose," says Stains now. "I said to my wife, 'Tony Rea knows me, he knows I can coach so if he wanted me he would have called'. Perhaps there was a little insecurity too, fear of a knock-back. But I got over that, thank God."

Once the call had been made, there was little doubt that an acquaintance first formed on the playing fields of the Queensland outback would be renewed in the more illustrious surroundings of the English Super League. Both men have come a long way: Rea from the coastal town of Bunderburg to the north of Brisbane, Stains from a 500-acre dairy farm an hour to the west of Toowomba - pronounced "Toomba" - in the heart of fertile "footie" territory.

One other call confirmed that Stains was the man to lead the Broncos into a new and more prosperous century. Jack Gibson, the acknowledged guru of rugby league coaches in Australia, knew Rea and Stains from their days together in Brisbane. He also knew at least two of the other candidates for the post. "I rang Jack and he was the one that clinched it," Rea recalls. "He said Dan and that was my gut reaction as well."

Six months on, the Broncos are anticipating the biggest day out of their young lives. With Manchester and Newcastle contesting the FA Cup final, it has been left to the unheralded Broncos, a potent mixture of hometown talent, grizzled northerners and wily Australians to uphold the capital city's sporting honour. Nothing attracts passing trade so readily as a good Cup run and most of their allocation of 15,000 tickets have been sold. But Wembley on Saturday will be Virgin territory in every sense, for Stains as much as Richard Branson, the club's charismatic co-owner. Winning friends and influencing people is almost as significant as putting silverware on to the empty sideboard down at Harlequins, the Broncos' adopted home. On Saturday afternoon, a tender 19 years of history will be put on the line against one of the traditional giants of the English game.

At 34, Stains will be one of the youngest coaches to grace the Wembley sidelines. Some of his team are older. Stains was born to coach. Playing was merely a step along the way. He was already memorising patterns of play in his early teens, but his playing career at State of Origin and international level suffered from a surprising introspection. In the company of legends like Wally Lewis and Mal Meninga, the shy kid from Toowoomba could never be himself. He was always looking around, wondering whether he was saying the right thing, dressing the right way. To others, he was a tough bastard of a player, the problem was his own insecurity.

"I don't really have fond memories of that time," he says. "My fondest memories are of playing in the bush." For the Valley Roosters of Toowomba against the Oakey Bears in the Grand Final in front of a couple of thousand people. "I was 18 and spent the whole time talking to my workmates about rugby league. They were much older and probably thought, 'What the hell's this kid on?' But when I was realising my dream, playing for my country, it wasn't what it was cracked up to be. I didn't enjoy it because I didn't feel part of the team. I wasn't being myself; the joy and peace I feel in myself since I've discovered what I'm about has been an enormous relief. I feel comfortable talking about anything to anyone."

The discovery has been gradual, a flirtation with some motivational texts developing into a full embrace of the Christian faith. Stains was brought up as a Catholic, fighting with his three brothers in the back of the Holden on the way to church every Sunday morning. His father died when he was three and his mother was left to bring up a family on the dairy farm, the oldest of the six children barely 12. The local school had 26 pupils. Church was one of the rituals, along with milking, ploughing, planting wheat and harvesting, though Stains never really understood the point. Only when he experienced a crisis of confidence in his own career did his search for a wider significance to his life gain any sort of clarity.

The teachings of Jesus, he says, are a formula for a successful life. Rea wondered whether it would be a formula for a successful coach. "When we came to interview him I did wonder whether it was going to be obsessive, a deterrent, but I didn't find that. The fact that he speaks so openly about his faith tells you about his strength."

Glenn Hoddle's fall showed the dangers of mixing sport and religion. Stains displays none of Hoddle's proselytising instincts nor does he voice any wacky views on reincarnation. He is happy to talk about his journey to personal fulfilment, does so with a humility and an eloquence which always evaded Hoddle, but conversions are strictly for the park. His religion works for him; everyone else can take it or leave it.

"I didn't hear Glenn Hoddle's side of the story, but I don't share his beliefs, put it that way," he says. "There's a bit of God in everyone. Everyone craves to be in touch with their spiritual side, craves a bit of compassion, particularly in our tough game, but I don't believe I have any set philosophies which are alien to the players. As a coach, I'm a salesman. I have to sell my philosophies to the players. If they don't buy into them - and the players clearly didn't buy into Hoddle's - you're gone as a coach. The players didn't believe in him and the Football Association didn't believe in him either. He missed the sale and I can understand why."

No one listening to a Broncos training session would mistake it for a Sunday school outing. Stains has turned the Broncos into a side after his own image: mobile, tough and dedicated, qualities epitomised by the unlikely named Steele Retchless, the emergency prop who led Broncos to a breathtaking semi-final victory over Castleford. "Modern front rowers are 6ft 3in and 110 kilos," says Stains. "Steelo is 5ft 10in and 97 kilos but he kept knocking them down and causing them trouble and he does that every minute of every game, every week, every training session. It's not big people who win the game, it's tough people."

One reason why Shaun Edwards might yet make the starting line with his broken thumb. Edwards says the Broncos are so lightweight, they will be mistaken for the warm-up act on Saturday. Leeds will not be fooled. Faith and hope might bolster Stains' Broncos on Saturday afternoon; charity will not be part of his message.