Rugby League: McGinty goes back to his roots

Super League returns to Scotland tomorrow and Wigan's assistant coach can be a perfect guide. By Dave Hadfield
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THERE WILL be some genuine Scots blood pumping at Hearts tomorrow and Billy McGinty has the scars to prove it.

The former Wigan and Great Britain rugby league forward, now the assistant coach at Central Park, was born in Glasgow and can virtually play the part of native guide for the club's foray to Tynecastle to play Gateshead.

"I'm really, really patriotic," he says. "So much so that I've got a tattoo of a thistle on my bum. I'd wanted one for a while and the last time I was up there with the Scotland team the lads talked me into it; it's the best place to have it done, I suppose."

Scotland? Or your bum? McGinty doesn't elaborate, but he does point out that it was a tattoo of a thistle, not with a thistle. Either way, for a proud Scot, it stung to be deprived of his duties as Scotland coach earlier this season.

"I was very disappointed, because I thought I'd done a pretty decent job," he says. By a piece of pure serendipity, Gateshead's Shaun McRae, is the man who has replaced him, leaving McGinty to concentrate on his club duties.

Those consist of guiding and nurturing the Under-21 side - not dissimilar to the Academy line-up he took charge of last season - and helping out with the first team on match days.

It was also at Wigan that he had his halcyon days as a player. "I'd had nine and a half years at Warrington, where I was just another run- of-the-mill player who worked hard. At Wigan, I was lucky enough to get a break and I seized it."

Previously regarded as under-sized and woefully injury prone, his three years with the dominant team in the game saw him win every honour, including four Great Britain caps, but he is perhaps remembered best for his last match, when he answered an emergency by moving up to prop in the astonishing World Club Championship victory at the Brisbane Broncos.

By then, he had already signed with Workington for the following season, but his stint with them was ended by a head injury that has left him with a legacy of pains behind his eyes even now.

McGinty, whose escapades include meeting the then Prime Minister, John Major, with a pineapple ring strategically placed about his person, is not a man to be knocked down for very long - and it was his Scottish heritage that provided him with a route back into the mainstream of the game.

"I'm a Glaswegian born and bred," he says in his Scouse twang. "But we emigrated to South Africa when I was six and finally came back and settled in the quaint Cheshire coastal village of Widnes, with its waving palm trees."

His Scots antecedents made him the ideal candidate to coach the national side last year and McGinty has grounds for believing that his efforts were worthwhile. Despite fielding a much weaker team on paper, Scotland took France and Ireland close before losing to both.

"The players we had last year all gave 100 per cent," he says. "But we only had three who had played for Scotland before. We had a good spirit and a few of the players have asked me since why I'm not involved any more."

McGinty remains well-placed to assess the code's potential in Scotland. "There's a working class audience there, that likes a rough and tough type of sport," he says. "But if they want it to be successful in Scotland they've got to put a lot of money into it. It's tough to get completely new fans to go and watch rugby league.

"Too many people just look at the short term, but if they want to establish a club up there money has to be no object."

Those who do venture to Tynecastle tomorrow will, McGinty assures his fellow countrymen, see a proper match, with plenty at stake.

"We've got to push for that third spot," he says. "And getting some new players in has helped because the squad was a bit thin. Players like Gavin Clinch and Chris Chester will be a huge bonus, because it gives us a lot more variations.

"It's like when I was playing for Wigan and I had the likes of Andy Farrell and Mick Cassidy snapping at my heels. Everyone knows now that they're going to have to play well to stay in the team."

As for Gateshead, McGinty sees signs of an expanding repertoire. "As a team of Australians, they've been brought up not to make mistakes in their own half. They've got a big pack that takes a lot out of you, but they're offloading more now - playing a more expansive game."

Despite his Wigan loyalties, McGinty has more reason than most for wanting Tynecastle to see a gripping contest tomorrow. And despite that thistle, his Scottishness is a lot more than skin-deep.