Rugby League: Lang living for the moment as Sharks prepare to strike

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The Independent Online
A dizzy schedule sees the Cronulla coach, John Lang, land in Britain for a match against the London Broncos just after the Australian Super League side he also guides lost to arch rivals New Zealand.

That result will not help the preparations of Lang, a man under pressure.

It is small wonder than John Lang is looking just a little frayed around the edges. Even he admits that six days towards the end of last month were not the best of his rugby career.

Within the space of a week, Lang's Cronulla Sharks lost the Super League Grand Final, not unexpectedly and not without honour, and his Australian Test team was beaten, much more traumatically, by New Zealand.

No sooner had that sunk in, than he was changing hats once more, bringing his club side to Britain for the World Club Championship quarter-final against the London Broncos, a match that carries with it the threat of an unwanted hat-trick.

Lang copes with this schizoid life by keeping it in strict compartments. "I never think about one match until the previous one is over," he says. "I can't say I was very impressed with the idea of bringing Cronulla straight over to England when I woke up at 5.30 the morning after the Test in Auckland. But now that's all over and you just start again."

A marvellous year has started to turn sour for Lang. Cronulla's form in 1996 won him the right to coach the Australian Super League representative side and the Sharks performed even better this season -at least until an hour into the Grand Final.

"It was a bit like watching London in their game against the Brisbane Broncos. We held them up to a certain point and then just fell away. But we made it to the Grand Final and we have to regard that as a good season."

Putting an Australian international team on to the field six days after that match was always asking for trouble. More than half the Test squad had played in the Grand Final and seemed flat and uninspired as the Kiwis beat their great rivals 30-12, their first victory over the Australians for six years.

"It certainly didn't help the preparation," Lang says. "But the result really wasn't all that surprising when you look at recent history. Great Britain have been capable of beating us in Test matches for the last few series. Australian domination has been tenuous for quite some time."

So rapid was the turn-around to get Cronulla on the plane to London that Lang had no opportunity to gauge the reaction in Australia to that defeat, which might be just as well.

Lang will bring Australia to Britain for their three-Test series in November but, for now, it is the club hat that is firmly back on his head. His reputation as the safe pair of hands among Super League coaches has taken a battering and this is his chance to restore it.

Lang was an Australian Test hooker, but he has come up through the coaching ranks the long way, via the club competition in his native Brisbane before taking on the perennially under-achieving Cronulla-Sutherland.

Under his guidance, they have become more respected than at any time in the Sydney club's history. If they go home beaten next week, however, the season will be remembered for its unfulfilled promise.

"That's the good thing about football," he says. "If you have one disappointment, there's soon another match to concentrate on and all you can do is to prepare the best you can."

Lang's preparations for Sunday have been disrupted by the absence of two key players, the Test scrum-half, Paul Green, who cracked his sternum against New Zealand, and Tawera Nikau, who has stayed at home for personal reasons.

He moves Mitch Healey to scrum-half, a position in which he is equally comfortable, with Adam Dykes coming in at stand-off, but the lack of Nikau's wide-ranging attacking skills will be felt.

"On the other hand, we were without Nathan Long the last time we played in England and, now that he is back, he will make a mark. Missing players create opportunities for others."

Lang also has Andrew Ettingshausen fit again after missing the Kiwi Test, which gives the Sharks a reassuringly familiar look in the three-quarter line.

London, by contrast, have lost Shaun Edwards, initially to injury and now by his transfer to Bradford.

"That is bound to take something out of their attack, but I remember that Bobbie Goulding was missing when we played St Helens and the young bloke who replaced him [Sean Long] was just about their best on the night, so I won't be making any assumptions."

Nor, although it is only three weeks until he swaps roles yet again and comes back to Britain with an Australian squad in tow, will he be making many plans for that trip.

"I might look for a few training facilities, but that's about all," he says, insisting that the experience of his one-time understudy at Cronulla, Stuart Raper, shows the dangers of thinking too far ahead.

Raper's Castleford met a Bradford team in the Premiership that was already arguing the toss over whether they would have Robbie Paul available for the final. While they were worrying about that, Cas knocked them out and rendered the argument academic.

So that is the philosophy of Lang's split rugby existence: don't look forward, don't look back.

"I'm a slow learner," he says, with a distinct air of if-this-is-Wednesday- it-must-be-London. "But I've learnt that much."

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