Rugby League: Fulton at the fulcrum: Dave Hadfield meets a model rugby league coach who will drive on Australia

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The Independent Online
IT IS no great encouragement to Great Britain's rugby league team to say that the Kangaroo tour party, who play their opening match against Cumbria at Workington this afternoon, is built in the image of its coach.

Bob Fulton, despite being born in England, is the epitome of the driven Australian professional and as such has played a pivotal role in making their game what it is today. When the recently departed Britain coach Malcolm Reilly went to Australia to play for Manly in 1970, he was immediately struck by something in the approach and attitude of the sandy-haired stand-off sharing the same changing room that he had never seen in a player before.

The intensity and the obsessive thoroughness of his preparation set him apart from his peers, even at that early stage of his career. Fulton can claim to be the first truly modern professional, and his supreme natural ability made him the code's dominant player.

He played in three World Cups and appeared on two Kangaroo tours, captaining them in 1978, as well as returning to his birthplace to spend a season playing for Warrington. Fulton's stay was relatively brief - he played 13 matches - but his impact was a foretaste of the long era of Australian supremacy that was approaching.

As a coach, the streets were not immediately paved with gold for him. He took on the notoriously difficult double role of player and coach with Eastern Suburbs with mixed success until becoming what he had always seemed destined to be - coach of Manly. He resigned six years later, in 1988, to take another step towards what many observers saw as the fulfilment of his destiny by becoming the Australian coach.

Back in charge at Manly, he now combines the two jobs, as well as running a successful chemical company and dabbling in media work. Fulton has always believed in keeping busy.

His other beliefs are evident in the teams he puts on the field. Fulton was a famously hard-bitten player, but he always, whether with Manly or Australia, embraced the game's expansive possibilities. His teams move the ball rapidly and fluently, giving the lie to any lingering thought that Australian rugby league in the 1990s is a species of muscle-bound chess.

At the same time, he is an almost fanatical believer in the value of size in a rugby league team. A small player himself, Fulton learned early in his career the importance of harnessing the power of others. His teams - and this squad is no exception - are always physically formidable.

There is a commendably positive belief in the British camp that the Australians' sheer size can be made into a problem for them as well as an asset. It is not quite clear how this will be achieved, short of lowering the roof of the Wembley tunnel. The classic method of exploiting ponderous bulk is by using a varied kicking game to make players turn and chase, but, apart from being big, the Australian forwards, with perhaps just one exception, are tremendously mobile as well.

The other Fulton theme is continuity. It is often said of him by way of criticism that it is harder to get out of his sides than into them. Like all coaches for whom loyalty plays a major role in their deliberations, there is an unavoidable risk of picking players on past achievements.

But Fulton's attachments to certain players are never sentimental, and Australia have benefited from his disinclination to discard players on the basis of a few ordinary games in the Winfield Cup.

Players such as Mal Meninga, Paul Sironen, Glenn Lazarus and Allan Langer have all been written off by pundits as back numbers at various stages of last season, but there was never the slightest chance of Fulton touring without them.

Another plank in the Fulton philosophy is that matches start long before kick-off time. If there is any psychological advantage to be gained, no one is better equipped to seize upon it; he has a well-earned reputation for manipulating a situation to get the best out of his men.

Yet he finds it hard to explain his success. 'I've had 30 years of people looking for things that aren't there,' he says. 'I just give honest answers to questions. I steer away from any controversy.'

But has he become mellow with experience? Fulton refers to Harry Gration, the former broadcaster and now the Rugby League's spokesman, whom he memorably savaged on the last tour, as 'my friend'.

His side, however, are unlikely to be as accommodating on the pitch at Workington today, or for the rest of the tour.

TOUR ITINERARY: Today v Cumbria (Workington, 3); October 5 v Leeds (7.30); 8 v Wigan (3); 12 v Castleford (7.30); 16 v Halifax (3); 22 First Test v Great Britain (Wembley, 2.45); 26 v Sheffield Eagles (7.30); 30 v Wales (Ninian Park, Cardiff, 3); November 1 v St Helens (7.30); 5 Second Test v Great Britain (Old Trafford, 3); 9 v Warrington (7.30); 13 v Bradford Northern (3); 15 v Great Britain Under-21s (Gateshead Stadium, 7.30); 20 Third Test v Great Britain (Elland Road, Leeds, 2.40).

(Photograph omitted)