Rugby League: Senior's national service

The rugby league centre who was so nearly the saviour for Great Britain on the wing has finally come of age.
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the ironies of Great Britain's first Test defeat by New Zealand last Saturday was that it was the junior member of their vaunted back line who saw the least ball and did the most with it.

That junior partner was Keith Senior, playing a position he had hardly sampled for three years and emerging as one of the beaten team's successes. As well as defending strongly in the unfamiliar left-wing role at Huddersfield, he scored one try and was denied a potentially match-saving penalty try in the last minute by the referee.

"I just hope I've done enough to keep my shirt," he said. "You don't care where you play in a Test match; you just want to be there and you adapt as best you can."

There should be little doubt about his participation at Bolton in the second Test tomorrow, but Senior is a bit of a conundrum. With his sheer size and shaven head, he looks like an uncompromising bruiser. He can be - and he gained national notoriety for his punch on Castleford's Barrie- Jon Mather during Sheffield Eagles' Wembley run - but he is also a finely- tuned individual psychologically, something that those who want to get the best out of him have had to come to terms with.

Take the 1996 tour to Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand. He was on that - and still isn't quite sure why. He made two substitute appearances in Tests, but it was obvious from watching him that his confidence was draining away gradually throughout the trip.

"I've got a lot of mixed emotions about that tour," he said. "You've got to have experiences like that, but, in the games, I let the nerves get to me. I was 20 years old, I'd never really been away and I was missing my home. I got a bit overwhelmed by it all and I couldn't cope with the pressure."

Senior did not respond well either to the man-management techniques favoured by the then Great Britain coach, Phil Larder. "If someone starts getting on my back, it gets to me. It's the wrong way to be, but it gets to me. Phil Larder intimidated you. He seemed to think that shouting at you and degrading you would make you perform better. Unfortunately, in one or two cases, it didn't work."

What has worked for Senior is a different approach altogether. His club coach at Sheffield, John Kear, has realised that he thrives on encouragement. Kear has given him plenty, describing him all season as the best centre in Britain and steadily building up his sometimes fragile self-confidence.

With Kear as his assistant, it is not surprising that the current Great Britain coach, Andy Goodway, has pursued the same policy. "Being coached by Andy is completely different from being coached by Phil. It's all about encouraging you to play to your abilities."

Even out of position, there were clear signs of Senior doing that on Saturday. In his hometown of Huddersfield, he also looked far more at home in Test rugby than he did two years ago, but then much has changed since 1996. "I'm much more used to playing against the other players in the squad now," he said. "That means that I've a much better idea of what they're going to do."

Then there is the simple question of size. Senior was something of a beanpole two years ago. Since then, a concerted programme of weight training at Sheffield has piled on over a stone in muscle. The Great Britain manger, Phil Lowe, looks at him now and reflects on the fact that here is a centre or wing who is now bigger than he was when he played second-row in Tests.

In one sense, Senior was more open to criticism than any other player in the Test. After all, Goodway had ignored the claims of two specialist left-wingers in Anthony Sullivan and Francis Cummins, who just happened to be the leading try-scorers in Super League, in order to accommodate a man playing out of position.

"You don't really think about that," he said, but from his vantage point he had plenty of opportunity to observe what was going wrong elsewhere. "It was the little things that didn't go right for us. We played with plenty of heart, but we didn't play with our heads."

Surprising as it might sound from a centre-cum-winger, Senior believes that Great Britain moved the ball too wide, too soon.

"That just makes it easy for a sliding defence. You've got to get some `go-forward' and throw it around after that. You can see the difference in the training sessions this week. The New Zealanders have been together a month and eight or nine of them come from the Auckland Warriors. That makes a difference, but we've got to get our game together this time."