Rugby League: Great strides of the Simms boy wonders

Featherstone are one step away from joining the Super League thanks to a coach who believes there is a substitute for experience.
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The Independent Online
WHEN STEVE SIMMS talks about his young players, you start to believe that an overgrown village that is the antithesis of Super League's national and international aspirations will have a team in that competition next season.

Featherstone Rovers are one match away from winning the right to apply for Super League membership. If they beat Wakefield Trinity in the First Division Grand Final at Huddersfield tomorrow, it will be hard to deny them their dream.

It is a dream to which Simms has made a characteristic contribution. At his local club, South Sydney, and in Britain with Leigh and Halifax, he has always been a coach to give youth its head.

Not that he had much choice at Featherstone, where the first thing he had to do was cut the wage bill to balance the books. Not for the first time, the kids have done him proud.

With Simms that is a whole philosophy. At Souths, he introduced the 16- year-olds like Terry Hill, Jim Dymock and Jim Serdaris to his Under-21s side. All three went on to play for Australia.

In England, he has launched careers, like those of Paul Rowley and Chris Chester, which will surely lead to Test caps. But he has never been as enthused as he is by some of his youngsters at Featherstone.

"The only difference between a 17-year-old and a 26-year-old is that the 17-year-old will get better. At 26, you might hold your form, but you're not going to improve.

"Some coaches take the easy option by bringing in experience, but that's not what coaching is about to me. You just have to show faith in the kids. They never let you down."

That has certainly been the case this season. After a sluggish start, Featherstone have improved on the back of the rapid strides made by young players like Stuart Dickens, Neil Lowe, Richard Chapman and Karl Pratt.

"If Dickens isn't the best young front-rower in Britain, I don't know who is. He's going to play for Great Britain. He's a clever, smart player - all class, good ball skills and he's probably the best goal-kicker at the club."

Lowe, also 19, gets a similar rave review. "He's the best back-rower I've ever brought through. His work-rate and defence are outstanding, he's scored some great tries and he's got a kicking game."

Alongside those two, Chapman is an old man of 23, but there is a verve about his play as hooker and dummy half that fits in with the Simms approach.

"Richard has just got better and better. When he came to us from Sheffield, he just wanted to run all the time. That was all he knew how to do, but now he's become a play-maker."

There is no doubt about the jewel in the Featherstone crown, however, because in Pratt they have the most scrutinised and coveted player outside Super League.

Only just 18, Pratt is a Great Britain stand-off in the making, currently honing his skills on the left wing and scoring tries for fun. "He's already one of the best finishers in the game," says Simms. "His pace is outstanding, and he's very strong. He's going to go all the way, there's no doubt about that."

But all the way, via where? That is the question. Simms admits that defeat tomorrow, or failure to get into Super League, will inevitably mean some or all of his out- standing crop of young players moving on.

"I would never stand in their way," he says, but cannot see why they should not all play in Super League with Featherstone Rovers.

"There's nothing wrong with the ground or the facilities. And, as far as crowd potential is concerned, if we were playing Wigan and Leeds, we would draw more than Sheffield, London and Gateshead.

"We have the players who could compete at that level. There are players in Super League who aren't up to Super League standard; there are better players in the First Division."

Remarkably, Simms still does not know whether he will be with his young charges next year. If they are not there, he might not be either, because he has not even spoken to Featherstone yet about extending a contract that ends in December.

"They don't know how they're going to be fixed, because they don't know which division they're going to be in and how much money they're going to have. I'd like to stay, but we'll just have to see how it works out."