Rugby League: Larder full of theories for Widnes: The architect of a British coaching revolution will see his ideas put to the test this season. Dave Hadfield reports

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FEW Rugby League coaches will have their progress this season monitored as closely as the new man at Widnes. The game needs one of the handful of clubs theoretically capable of challenging Wigan to get back into their stride after a wasted year. But there will also be plenty of people waiting for Phil Larder to fall flat on his face.

Larder has come to club coaching by a circuitous route. A product of the Loughborough colleges rugby union sides of the 1960s - he played on the wing outside Gerald Davies - he later spent 11 years as a goalkicking centre with Oldham, followed by a short finale with Whitehaven.

Since then he has been the main architect of a revolution in British coaching methods - without ever having to put them in to effect at a professional club.

Larder has worn a series of hats - national director of coaching, Great Britain assistant coach and head of the Under-19s Academy competition among them - but his greatest claim to fame is that it was he, back in the dark days of 1982, who realised that the British game needed to adopt Australian coaching methods if it was ever to catch up.

He was the conduit through which most of those ideas flowed; ideas like the importance of weight-training and upper-body strength and the use of statistics in training and in matches which are now conventional wisdom to most but still regarded as mumbo-jumbo by a vociferous minority.

It has been an important contribution, but ever since his first tour with Great Britain in 1988, Larder has felt himself pulled in a different direction.

'I enjoyed touring enormously, because the part of the job I liked best was the day-to-day contact with players,' he says. 'I came back from that tour knowing that I wanted to coach a club.'

There were a couple of vague approaches, one or two jobs for which he seemed to be in the frame, but nothing more. 'I was waiting for the right job,' he says, and, 10 days before this summer's tour, it arrived.

Widnes had gone through a generally disappointing season under the leadership of the vastly experienced, but, in terms of modern coaching methods, somewhat outmoded Frank Myler. Their chairman, Jim Mills, phoned Larder to ask him to take over as coach with Myler moving upstairs as manager.

It did not take Larder long to decide, even though it meant negotiating a release from his Great Britain duties to allow him to return to England for pre-season training after the Australian leg of the tour.

It is a risk for both parties. Widnes traditionally appoint from within their network of old boys. As the first man from outside that mainstream, Larder has unlimited potential for ruffling feathers and he is, after all, untried at club level.

He has given up a virtual job for life within rugby league's headquarters hierarchy for a post with less job security than running a branch of Ratner's.

Apart from the lure of coaching a top club, two factors influenced his decision to take the plunge. One was the feeling that he was increasingly becoming a deskbound administrator and the other was his uncomfortable situation at the eye of the storm generated by the row between the amateur and professional branches of the game over youth rugby.

That dispute is as impenetrable to outsiders as any Balkan conflict but it has become increasingly nastly and destructive. 'I'm glad to be out of it,' Larder says, 'and I wouldn't wish that aspect of the job on my worst enemy.'

But it could, he concedes, turn out to be good practice for coaching a club with a large and opinionated committee as opposed to the more usual board of directors, and with some strong personalities in the dressing-room.

The suspicion with a former schoolmaster who has worked so extensively with young players is that he could feel more at home with them than with established professionals. He denies this. 'I've always enjoyed working with players like Garry Schofield and Ellery Hanley and have always got on well with them.'

That being said, there are young players like Paul Atcheson in the backs and Steve McCurrie in the forwards who will anticipate more chances under Larder's regime.

Some decisions about the best way to use various more experienced players have already been made. Jonathan Davies will begin the season at full-back, where Larder believes he will find more freedom to use his kicking game and his dazzling running ability. John Devereux will revert to wing to press for a place in the Great Britain side for the World Cup final.

Even more intriguing is the appointment of Paul Hulme as captain, a leader of the blood-and- guts school rather than the cool, calculating persuasion.

Larder has a theory that the tacticians of the side have enough on their plate without being expected to motivate players as well. Like his other theories, it is about to be tested in the real world.

(Photograph omitted)

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