Rugby League: Operation O'Neill

Dave Hadfield talks to the St Helens forward with Monie matters to sort out
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APART from the land of their birth and the small matter of never having lost a Challenge Cup tie, John Monie and Shaun McRae have something else in common.

Both have coached Julian O'Neill, who packs down for St Helens at Wigan today, and both have left their mark on a prop forward who promises to blossom this season. O'Neill was one of the raftful of young New Zealand prospects signed up by the Auckland Warriors for their inaugural season - and then released at the end of it.

"It has turned out to be a good move for me," he said of Monie's decision to let him go. "But it does mean that it would be nice to put one over on him."

O'Neill never got the opportunity to make an impact at the top level with the Warriors, but was thrown straight into first team rugby in England when Saints threw him a lifeline. There he came under the wing of McRae, whose record of two Challenge Cups and the first Super League title during his initial two years in Britain has inevitably been compared with Monie achievements during his first stint at Wigan.

O'Neill is one of the few to have seen the two Australians work at close quarters. "Apart from both having success, they've got a lot of similar ideas about the game," he said. "They are very good at getting the best out of players. If I had to pick out a difference, it would be that Shaun's approach is a bit more relaxed."

That approach paid off handsomely in the cup last season, with O'Neill a part of the side that beat Wigan in the fourth round and went on to retain the trophy at Wembley against Bradford. "We've beaten Wigan in the cup before and we can do it again," is his attitude to a task that was beyond Saints for years.

O'Neill was the club's only major acquisition last season, but the situation is very different this time, with a heavy turnover of players during the winter giving them a relatively unfamiliar look this time.

The 24-year-old has a new partner at prop in the Australian, Brett Goldspink, and his own relative seniority is now encouraging him to expand his repertoire. "As the only new recruit last year, I kept it pretty simple. I was just taking the ball forward, but this time I'm trying to do a bit more with it - to keep it alive more.

"I've played against Wigan's new prop, Tony Mestrov, and he is the type who takes it straight up the middle. He also plays the ball very quickly. But, if you look through the Wigan team, there's a threat everywhere."

O'Neill also knows from experience how demanding Monie can be. The conventional wisdom in Australasia is that Auckland, under his coaching, failed to live up to expectations because they lacked the power and passion in the front-row.

The quietly-spoken Kiwi is not banging any big drum about it, but he would be less than human if he did not relish the opportunity to show him that he could have been part of the answer.