Rugby League: Hughes walking a tightrope

Dave Hadfield talks to the former St Helens coach who now has the job of reviving Wigan in the second season of Super League starting this weekend
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Looking at the world through Eric Hughes' eyes on the eve of the new Super League season, it could be difficult to decide whether he has the best job in the game or the worst.

Hughes is the man charged with holding together the stronghold that was Wigan; an edifice undermined by drama and tension off the pitch and dwindling resources on it.

"I know what people are thinking," he says. "Eric Hughes has come to the club just as it's about to collapse under him. I still see it as a great opportunity, and you don't turn down opportunities like this."

They say something else about Hughes. They say that he was the coach discarded by St Helens just as they approached take-off velocity and that his appointment at Central Park shows that the balance of power in the oldest rivalry in the game has shifted fundamentally. Wigan are now taking Saints' rejects.

"People are discarded all the time," he says. "It's the nature of the game, but you've got to have confidence in your own ability to do the job."

Although it was only after the appointment of the Australian, Shaun McRae, as his successor that Saints began to win trophies, Hughes is entitled to claim his share of the credit.

"I think I did a pretty good job at St Helens. I knew I had problems when I took over an ageing team with no money in the bank to change it without a lot of wheeling and dealing.

"When I left, they had a young team that was just about to take off. I'm proud of what I did at St Helens."

What he was originally brought in to do at Wigan was the job at which he has few equals: identifying and nurturing young talent.

Few would have doubted his ability to make a success of that. But, as he would admit, taking full responsibility a few months later for the whole shooting match is a different matter entirely. He had no hesitation in accepting the invitation to take over from Graeme West, but neither he nor anyone else expects it to be easy for him to put the sense of purpose back into Wigan.

The way in which he started the task was revealing. One by one, the players were called in for a face to face session with their new coach.

They were invited to talk about how they thought the playing side of the club should be run and how they saw their role in that scheme of things.

"Talking to them in a group can mean that the quieter ones don't get a say, so I learned a lot more this way," Hughes said. "They won't get it all their own way, but they will be listened to."

One conclusion he soon reached was that the players needed a more structured working week,

"We discussed what a fair working week would be and I've organised it so that they have a few afternoons off and at least one full day. Everyone needs that."

The trade-off for that is that when they are at work, they are at work. Wigan players are not quite clocking on and off, but there is a new emphasis on discipline and a more visible work ethic.

That is very much in tune with Eric Hughes' whole career. A lean, fit, skilful centre with a distinct mean streak - "I prefer the term committed," he says - he won the full range of honours with Widnes and played eight Tests for Great Britain. Unlike some equally talented players of his era, he was always a grafter and will expect no less of his new charges.

"It's not that he's brought in a lot that's new," says one of the most gifted, Henry Paul. "We are all experienced players and we know all the moves.

"What he has brought is a new emphasis on doing the basics properly. The other thing is defence. We were always known as a mean team defensively; we've lost a bit of that and we need to get back to it."

These are limited objectives, but the word from around Central Park is that Hughes has made a good start towards them. That is just as well, because the time he has available is limited as well.

As Hughes points out, Wigan can guarantee themselves another bad season very quickly. Losing two games was enough to deny them the Super League title first time, so a good start is essential.

They must make that start without Va'aiga Tuigamala, sold to Newcastle as part of the disintegration of the playing strength, Kelvin Skerrett, who will be on the bench for Wigan's first opponents, Halifax, and Shaun Edwards, who is likely to be the next to leave.

"We do need to rebuild in some areas," Hughes admits. He is in contact with specific players to strengthen positions with which he is not satisfied, but has had the novel problem this week of his chairman being in court and thus rather preoccupied with other matters.

There is, in theory, about pounds 9m in Wigan's coffers from the sale of Central Park to Tesco, but will Hughes be allowed more autonomy in the transfer market than his predecessor?

If he is worried about these matters, Wigan's new coach is not showing it. He is positively philosophical about the prospect of Edwards' departure and still looks around him at training and sees an enviable array of talent.

"We are a lot better off than Saints were when I arrived there," he says. "I still see this as the best job in rugby league."