Rugby League: McRae of hope for Saints

Dave Hadfield talks to the St Helens coach rising to the Super League challenge
Click to follow
The Independent Online
EVENTS at Wembley last Saturday have put a new gleam into the eyes of sides who aspire to deny Wigan the Super League title. Nowhere was Wigan's new-found fallibility felt more sharply than at St Helens, whose coach, Shaun McRae, had come in for blame for building up an aura of invincibility around the side down the road.

McRae, whose Saints travel to Odsal for a potentially pivotal clash with Bradford tonight, believes that his views on the divine right or otherwise of Wigan have been misinterpreted. "I never said that Wigan were unbeatable," he said. "What I said that night they beat us was that their defence had been impregnable and that it would take something special to beat them - or for them to play below par. That's what happened against Sheffield at Wembley and it gives an indication of what can happen in Super League as well. It might make Wigan a better side, but it shows they can be beaten."

McRae believes that the third year of Super League is going to develop into a far more unpredictable competition than its predecessors. "When I first came here in '96, you knew that there were six teams - and Sheffield were probably one of them - you didn't even have to play well against. Now the whole competition is concertinaed. I rate teams like Hull and Huddersfield as better than any of those six and they are showing that they can mix it with you."

Saints and Bradford are two of the clubs who have to push Wigan all the way if Super League, at its top end, is to live up to the claim that it is truly unpredictable. One of them will lose ground at Odsal tonight, but McRae will be much closer to fielding the pack that he envisaged at the start of the season with the inclusion of Apollo Perelini and Paul Sculthorpe.

Perelini starts his first Super League game of the year, whilst Sculthorpe is back after a thigh strain and playing his best position of loose forward, allowing Paul Davidson to continue in the second row. It is even possible that Keiron Cunningham, the Great Britain hooker, could be in the line- up. "But I think it might be a week too early for him," said McRae, who is more likely to draw on the exceptional utility value of Karle Hammond as a stand-in hooker.

The Bulls will have Graeme Bradley back from a badly broken nose and McRae, who knows him well from their days together at St George, believes that will be an important boost for them. "But it is always very tough playing at Odsal, against a big, imposing side who set out to physically dominate you."

McRae's own future has been the subject of persistent conjecture and he is waiting for the club to talk to him about a possible extension to the three-year contract that ends after this season. He has never denied that his goal is to coach a first grade side in his native Australia. "I want to return, but it doesn't necessarily have to be this year," he said.