Rugby League: Tamati stays philosophical despite series defeat: Coach wants to be in charge for 1995 World Cup. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
FOR all his conscientious attempts to find reasons to be cheerful, this is the longest week of Howie Tamati's career.

For a touring team who have already lost the series, this is dead time - a time of depression and recrimination.

Tamati does not read the British papers, let alone those that are hitting the streets in New Zealand, but he knows that the knives will be out for him. Although his contract runs until the end of next season, the New Zealand Rugby League has a poor record of showing patience with coaches who are perceived to have failed.

More than that, they have an obvious successor waiting in the wings - Frank Endacott, the highly successful coach of Canterbury and the Junior Kiwis. Worse still for Tamati's prospects, the NZRL might feel that it has to move quickly to appoint Endacott, given the other offers that are being dangled in front of him.

There is a political aspect, as well. As a proud Maori whose day job with the Hillary Commission involves working for equal opportunities for that community, Tamati is sometimes accused of being too 'pro-Maori' in his selections. It is a charge undermined by his consistent championing of blond, blue-eyed types like Jarrod McCracken and Brent Stuart, but you can bet your life it is surfacing again back home at the moment. It is not as acute a problem as two Test defeats, but it does not improve his job security. 'It's something I've tried not to take too much notice of,' Tamati says. 'If I start worrying about my back there's no way I will get the best out of the players.

'I'd like to be in the job intil the Centenary World Cup in 1995. Every coach needs time and I don't think two years is enough.'

There have been times on this tour when Tamati has looked as though he has had enough, although he has managed to be more philosophical about the loss of the second Test and with it the series than he was after the Wembley debacle.

After what he called 'the worst performance I have ever been associated with', Tamati caused some concern the way he kept fingering a razor as he tried to analyse what had gone wrong.

Now he has what he describes as 'a few reasons for optimism' to cling to amid the wreckage of his tour. 'We came without injured players like McCracken, Matthew Ridge and Brent Stuart and without Gavin Hill and Tony Kemp who joined British clubs.

'That was a blow, but it meant that we brought young players who would not otherwise have been here and many of them have developed very well,' he says.

The tour has indeed produced its successes. Stephen Kearney has emerged as a second row of indisputable world class, Jason Mackie has made the most rapid progress of all the young prospects; second-stringers like Peter Edwards, David Lomax and Aaron Whittaker have shown signs of international potential.

Sadly for Tamati, there have been plenty of minuses as well. Sean Hoppe has gone from prime asset to liability, other established internationals like Quentin Pongia and Stuart have been uninspired and even Gary Freeman has found it a hard task to battle against the encroaching years as well as against Shaun Edwards.

The real weakness of Tamati's tour, however, has been structural. The

dispersal of Kiwi players in Australia and Britain makes their squad a scissors and glue job. First, the home- based players have to be blended with those playing in Australia to form a touring party; then the decision has to be made to omit a number of those players from the Test side in order to accommodate players from British clubs.

It is an operation which relies as much on good luck as good judgement. 'I've finished up picking players sight-unseen,' Tamati says. 'I get people phoning up to tell me that I have to pick such-and-such a player, that he's the best thing in England, that I can't leave him out. It can cloud your judgement.'

Anyone who watches rugby league in England could pick an entirely different Test side. It might have been better, it might have been worse, but Tamati believes it is too late to make sweeping alterations. 'Any wholesale changes now would just be panic. Apart from injuries, I have to continue to show faith in these players.'

Tamati's direct rival in this series, Malcolm Reilly, admits to some sympathy for Tamati, because he knows all about this situation. He has not been two down with one to play in a series, though, since Australia in 1988. Then, against all the odds, Great Britain won the third Test in Sydney.

In a bleak week, which continues tonight at Widnes and ends with the third Test at Headingley on Saturday, that is another small reason for Howie Tamati to try to be cheerful.