Rugby League: Saint Ellery sets tough benchmark

The new coach at Knowsley Road has hung up his boots for good.
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WHILE MOST eyes this afternoon are trained on Leeds and Wigan's Silk Cut Challenge Cup tie at Headingley, the man who dominated both clubs as a player will be starting his career as coach of St Helens at the other end of the city.

Ellery Hanley has always set himself a little apart. Even in an era when the game was becoming more professional and intense, there were other players who applied themselves seriously to it... and then there was Hanley, in a category of single-mindedness all of his own.

It seems strange in one sense to be describing him now as a new coach. After all, his involvement at both Wigan and Leeds went well beyond merely playing and, before decamping to Australia in 1995, he coached both England and Great Britain.

But today's fourth-round Challenge Cup tie against Hunslet at the South Leeds Stadium is his official debut as a club coach - and the attention will be on him from the start to assess whether he can bring with him the qualities that made him unique as a player.

"There's no big drama about it to me," he said. "I've known a lot of these players for a number of years, their weak points as well as their strengths." The ability to analyse those strengths and weaknesses served him well as a player; now he is bringing it to bear on St Helens.

"I'm a big believer in one-on-one coaching, going through the video and working on what it shows," Hanley said. "I'm giving them a heavier workload, but a mental workload as well as a physical one. I want players to come along to team meetings with a note pad and a pencil, to write down the information and absorb it, because that information will serve them well in the next match and through their careers.

"I always took a lot of mental notes and then wrote down the good and bad points from every coach, sifted through, took out the bad and hopefully kept the good."

At Saints, Hanley is most emphatically not one of the lads. "There's a distance between him and the players and he works to keep that," the Saints' football manager, Eric Hughes, said. "He's totally single-minded about what he wants from them and he gets it through a lot of respect and a bit of fear - and there's nothing wrong with that."

Although Hanley, at 37, is as fit as his players and was still playing in the top flight in Australia last year, he said: "I have to set myself aside. I wouldn't even go on to the pitch and play a warm-up game with them. I'm not interested in participating, I've seen coaches do it and it's a big mistake."

Hanley believes that he will never be a frustrated ex- player. "I've no desire for it. The one thing I'll never do is miss playing. Once you lose the desire to play you should never, ever go on a football field. That's when you let the team down, the spectators down and you disgrace yourself."

Not that it was on his agenda to be a club coach in England, either. "I was here to tidy up my business affairs. I'd got my residency in Australia and I was only here to ship my belongings out.

"But St Helens came in with the offer and I never choose not to listen to anyone. It wasn't an easy decision and I was in two minds about taking the job, but it's something I'm delighted with now. I've got this burning desire to come to work every day. There's a lot of people can't wait for the day to finish; I'm the opposite - I don't want it to end."

Whether he enjoys it as much in the long term inevitably depends on how Saints respond to him. "What they need is mental toughness," Hanley said. "They need to realise that every match lasts for 80 minutes and they have to have total concentration for those 80 minutes. Anyone who is here for a good pay day is in for a big shock. No one will get any favours from Ellery Hanley."

Some things have changed. Hanley's famous antipathy towards the media has softened considerably; how he will react to the criticism which will inevitably follow if Saints do not live up to the high expectations of their supporters, remains to be seen.

He declines to set himself targets for his first season. "The only thing that interests me is being ahead on the scoreboard in every game we play - starting at Hunslet. I don't look any further ahead than that. If you do, you lose sight of what's in front of you."

That ability to focus so precisely was what set Hanley apart as a player. It will be compelling to see how well it serves him now that he is setting himself apart in the singular role of coach.