Rugby League / First Test: Captains carrying the hopes of nations: Edwards happy to play Hanley's general

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The Independent Online
ELLERY HANLEY decided early in his musings as the Great Britain coach that he was not going to play against Australia himself. By appointing Shaun Edwards his captain, he has done the next best thing.

Edwards is his own man, but he is also Hanley's representative on earth. The ability of the one to act as the conduit for the force of the other's personality and ideas is vital to Britain's chances today at Wembley.

'I am there to carry out the coach's instructions to the letter,' Edwards said. It is hard to imagine him using precisely the same form of words about his role under any other coach. One former Wigan coach says that keeping Edwards happy gave him most of his major headaches, and another believes that Edwards' implacable opposition cost him his job.

Edwards and Hanley were like-minded allies in the Wigan dressing-room and have remained firm friends since Hanley's transfer to Leeds. Edwards is a student of the way other players conduct themselves; he adopts what he likes and has adopted much from Hanley.

Not that he needed many lessons in intensity and single-mindedness. Edwards had those qualities in abundance, from the moment he signed for Wigan, already under the spotlight of publicity, on his 17th birthday.

Although he no longer seems to be focused exclusively on the game - he crops up on the fringes of gossip columns these days, clubbing with exotic girlfriends - he has always nurtured a strong sense of his own significance within its history.

The son of Jackie Edwards, whose own career was curtailed by injury, there is an element of compensation in his unabated hunger for further honours.

For some, the thrill of winning trophies and caps might pall after the first few dozen of each. Not Edwards. 'It never wears off,' he says.

He wants to be remembered as the most successful player of his generation and he may manage just that. Twenty-eight this week, Edwards has just one thing left to achieve - leading Great Britain to victory over Australia in a Test and, beyond that, in a series.

He has captained his country before - a defeat by France in 1990 and a victory over the same opponents two years later - but there is a blot, real or imagined, on his record when it comes to Australia.

His detractors say that for all his domestic achievements, he has never 'done it' against top-class Australian opposition. His relatively quiet match for Wigan against the tourists two weeks ago raised that spectre once more.

He has not, it must be said, had the best of luck. An injury in Papua New Guinea saw him sent home from the 1988 tour and he also missed the 1990 series in this country. On Australia's last visit, for the World Cup final in 1992, he was moved, without conspicuous success, to stand-off.

Edwards has had his moments, though, against the game's most formidable opponents. He was an important part of the team who won a Test in Melbourne in such spectacular style two years ago, and he was an outstanding performer, up against one of this afternoon's two possible opponents, Allan Langer, when Wigan beat the Brisbane Broncos in the World Club Challenge in June.

There is a sense of a job unfinished, however. 'It's a proud moment for me to be appointed captain,' he said, 'especially as it is against Australia.'

Edwards, in fact, has everything he wants - the captaincy, the scrum-half jersey and a coach with whom he shares an unqualified admiration. The rest is up to him and he is adamant that, despite the tourists' impressive form so far, he leads a side with a 50-50 chance.

'You should always expect a national side to win all their club games, and that's what they've been doing,' he said. 'We're certainly not favourites.

Australia will have a good start on the coupon.

'They have changed their style; they let the ball go a lot more. But when we have beaten them, it has been because we have made fewer mistakes than Australia. If we carry out the game-plan to the letter, we will win; if we don't, we'll lose.'

Here is a man with faith in his battle-orders and thoroughly comfortable with his role as general to Hanley's Napoleon. It is a half-way house between being left to run the show as he sees fit and the old view of him as a 'support player' that he used to dislike so much, but it is a job description he willingly endorses.

What else would he bring to that job, he was asked on the day he was appointed. Nobody had the nerve to allude to a suit that would have done Chris Eubank justice by shouting out 'Dress sense]', but Edwards had an equally good alternative answer. 'Composure in dealing with the media,' he said, in a nice irony for a Hanley protege.

And no, he insisted this week, he was not feeling any pressure that might ruffle that composure. 'Pressure is when you're out of work with three kids,' he said. 'Rugby isn't pressure.' Great Britain need him to be just as composed at 2.50 this afternoon.

(Photograph omitted)