Rugby League: Lydon leads search for silver lining

Dave Hadfield talks to the man trying to put Super League back on track
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The Independent Online
Along with the deliveries of milk and newspapers containing little but depressing news to his doorstep, Joe Lydon must have one that brings poisoned chalices.

The Rugby League's technical director, who was already entrusted with one tricky task in nominating a credible coach for the Great Britain Test team, now also has to explain why the British are performing so badly at club level. If he is not bald, grey or both at the end of the next few weeks, it will be a considerable achievement.

Lydon's think-tank is a direct reaction to British clubs' deplorable showing in the World Club Championship. "But my first thought was that I didn't want it to be a knee-jerk thing," he said. "It's not a question of 'We're taking a pasting, go and find out what's wrong'."

But the British are taking a pasting and Lydon already has a shrewd suspicion about some of the things that are wrong - even if he insists that there is "no overnight solution".

A distinguished player with Widnes, Wigan and Great Britain, Lydon now has the responsibility for steering the game here back on to the path of righteousness. It makes outstripping an Australian cover defence and landing the winning goal from the touchline look relatively simple.

His mission will take him across a wide range of opinion and expertise, both inside and outside the game, but, as one who is used to musing on its strengths and weaknesses, he already has some themes in mind.

"We have seen that we have a problem with player strength," he said, "and that the players we do have are not subjected to intense competition, on a week to week basis.

"We lack the pyramid structure that brings players through to the top level in Australia. Ours is more like a cylinder, in which the same players go round and round to different clubs. And we have brought over a lot of players from the southern hemisphere who aren't of a standard to be required by Super League there. They are now taking places in European Super League and in future we should be thinking not so much of a quota but of a minimum standard."

Lydon concedes that, in the short term, that could lead to some clubs getting worse before they get better, but believes that the shortfall has to be made up by a more vigorous programme for developing domestic players.

"There are other sports which are putting a lot into development and we aren't," he said. "Clubs have got to stop being selfish and allow more of the game's income to be used in that area."

The almost relentless tide of British failure in the World Club Championship has raised the question of whether it should have been played at all - at least in its present long, drawn-out form. "From the point of view of results and crowds, you could argue that we would have been better off without it," Lydon said. "But it also adds power to the elbows of those who are concerned about the future of rugby league.

"I was expecting defeats - and in some cases heavy defeats - but there were clubs like St Helens and Bradford from whom I expected better, especially at home. I also had the feeling that Leeds might do well, with the style of rugby they had been playing."

After the failure of those clubs - and most others - to deliver, Lydon believes that there are two ways to react. One is for the clubs to learn the lessons and do their level best to act upon them.

The other and, he fears, the one some clubs and players might resort to if left to themselves, is to say: "Thank God that's over. Now we can get back to our own little world, as big fish in a small pool, getting money for what have been shown to be sub-standard performances."

Lydon's role is to try to ensure that it is the first attitude, rather than the second that prevails. If that is the case, there could be a gain to be made yet from the debacle of the World Club Championship, which could ultimately be seen as a wake-up call at club level equivalent to the one that the 1982 Kangaroos handed out in the Test sphere.

As the man who will nominate the new Great Britain coach, Lydon has to make a decision that will stop the one-sided club contest being reflected at international level, damaging the dented credibility of the code here still further.

"At Test level, I honestly believe that we can be competitive this autumn and that we can beat Australia," he said.

What the WCC has shown is that, whatever the truth of that contention at the top of the tree, at club level there is a massive difference in the depth and efficiency of the roots. And that is why Joe Lydon is likely to be wearing an expression of deep and furrowed thoughtfulness as he brings in his milk, papers and poisoned chalices.