RUGBY LEAGUE: Reilly the exile confirms home truths

Dave Hadfield finds the former Great Britain coach revelling in his latest challenge
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The Independent Online
To encounter Malcolm Reilly in his new home town of Newcastle on the coast of New South Wales is to find a man in his element. Only a few months into his job as coach of the Newcastle Knights in Australia's Winfield Cup, only the Castleford accent betrays that he was ever at home anywhere else.

It is not just that his house fronts on to a lake and backs on to the ocean and that he can jog from one to the other under clear blue skies, although that helps.

"It's a well-kept secret, this place," he says of a city whose image in Australia corresponds roughly to that of Middlesbrough, but which looks, from the right angle, suspiciously like a Pom's picture of paradise.

What really makes it the ideal home for the former Great Britain coach is that here he can run a rugby league club the way he thinks one should be run. Like a kid with a new toy, he discovered that he could get his new team together for nine training sessions a week during the pre-season build-up without any trouble at all. After matches, they soak their aches away in the saltwater pools on one of Newcastle's beaches. Halifax it is not.

Reilly walked out on both Halifax and Great Britain in mid-contract to renew a love affair with Australia which first blossomed when he went as a player to Manly in the 1970s. As someone who had railed against the dangers of allowing the current crop of British stars to migrate to Australia, he admits: "I feel a bit of a hypocrite."

But when the offer came from the Knights, via an exotic cloak-and-dagger meeting in Hong Kong, he simply could not resist. If you have the choice of doing what you love in an environment perfectly tailored for it, and trying to do the same thing amid frustrations and restrictions which are slowly driving you up the wall, why fight it?

Just a matter of a few months into his second voluntary exile, his views on the contrasts between the game in the two countries have crystallised with a hard-edged clarity. "I don't think we will ever beat Australia at international level again," he said.

Coming from someone who devoted almost eight years to trying to regain the Ashes, that is a damning and a worrying conclusion. He goes further: "Even if we had beaten them, it wouldn't really have changed anything. The game in Australia has moved so far ahead in terms of its profile and its junior development that I can't see Britain ever catching up."

Even at a club such as the Knights, traditionally regarded for their brute strength and aggression rather than their refinement, Reilly has found a level of skill that has staggered him and made him fear for the future competitiveness of his home country.

No Englishman had studied Australian rugby league more closely. "The level of skill was better than even I expected. I take the example of a player here like Jamie Ainscough, who has never played representative football. If you compare him with the very best of British centres, which means Paul Newlove and Gary Connolly, then he has got better skills."

This really is rather disturbing stuff. A player without a national, let alone an international reputation outshining the most accomplished stars that Britain can produce: what should we do? Just call it a day?

Reilly's views on the way forward in Britain were widely communicated before his sudden decision to jump ship last year. We need fewer games, played with greater intensity; quality rather than quantity. Many would agree, but he sees no prospect of even self-evident truths being put into practice.

So, Malcolm Reilly is plying his trade in New South Wales rather than West Yorkshire, and loving every minute of it. He is not, however, the wide-eyed newcomer, gaping admiringly and uncritically at everything he sees. There are matters over which he has taken a stand, fining three players heavily for testing positive for marijuana in tests that he insisted upon and two others for high tackles.

Those who remember the mean streak which accompanied the technical brilliance of Reilly the player will smile at that latter punishment, but it is a indicative of his determination to impose discipline on his new charges. More startling is the way that he has revamped the club's weight-training programme, an area in which Australian clubs are generally assumed to know their stuff and a case, you might think, of taking coals to Newcastle.

No one is inclined to argue against the idea of this Englishman telling them how to lift weights, however. The single-mindedness which was never entirely at ease with the compromises required in the British game has found a home here.

And when, the day after he had operations on both knees - wrecked, ironically, by his years playing on Sydney's dry grounds - he hobbled to training on crutches, the Newcastle players knew they were dealing with a man who will drive them and himself as hard as any Australian.