RUGBY LEAGUE: The importance of being Hanley

Dave Hadfield on the Leeds captain's relish for the grand occasion he faces in tomorrow's Wembley Challenge Cup final
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The Independent Online
For any other player, the prospect of going into the Silk Cut Challenge Cup final tomorrow surrounded by speculation over whether he will soon be playing, coaching or both, on this side of the world, the other or neither, would hardly seem the perfect preparation.

But this is Ellery Hanley and normal rules do not apply. Hanley has been, in every respect, a unique figure in rugby league over the last 15 years. No one has put in as much, achieved as much or got away with as much. No wonder that even the conjecture over his future is of heroic proportions.

The plain truth behind the Australian Rugby League's designs upon him is that they do not much care whether they recruit him as a player or a coach. They would sign him on as a referee or a groundsman, such is the propaganda value of his mere name.

Ken Arthurson, the chairman of the ARL, knows that value. "Signing Ellery would create a tremendous impact, so high is the regard in which he is held," he says. Men of 34 who can establish world records in the same breath as saying they are not sure whether they should still be playing deserve to be held in that sort of regard.

Hanley so far this season has scored 41 tries, more than any other forward has ever achieved. That total is a tribute, more than anything, to his adaptability. Contrary to some opinions, his try-scoring was never primarily the product of pure pace, but the inevitable loss of a yard or two has left him more dependent than ever on his reading of play.

That understanding of what happens on the pitch has seen him inherit the responsibility for coaching Great Britain. It is as though Terry Venables was still banging in hat-tricks for Spurs or Ray Illingworth bowling sides out for Yorkshire.

If Hanley decamped to the ARL, it would be a sickening blow for his guardian angel, the Rugby League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay; worse even than the decision of Malcolm Reilly to give up the Great Britain coaching job to work in Australia last year.

The credibility of the Super League, already dented by a fatal combination of heavy-handed bossiness and bumbling incompetence, would have been dealt a crushing symbolic blow. Lindsay is worried, Leeds are worried, Rupert Murdoch - assuming he has been briefed on Hanley's role in the game here - will be worried too.

The one person who will not be worried is Hanley himself. Wigan know him too well to fall into the trap of imagining that the uncertainty over his plans will affect him adversely at Wembley tomorrow.

Graeme West, Wigan's coach, observed him at close quarters before, during and after the four victorious Challenge Cup finals he played for the club. "Ellery has been involved in plenty of negotiations in his time, often before big matches," he says.

"It never seems to have affected him badly before. In fact, it seems to focus his mind on the job more than ever. He is the complete professional. His attitude is that this is his job and he is never better than when he realises that he has the stage upon which to demonstrate his value."

For a man with his businesslike approach, there is no better preparation for an important match than a good, protracted wrangle over his next contract.

Leeds, in deference to their unsuccessful argument that a decision on the Super League should be delayed, were given advance warning by the ARL that Hanley would be head-hunted. That gave them the opportunity to open negotiations with him and his lawyer and agent, John Fitzpatrick, last week.

The anxiety to retain his services is entirely understandable. It is hardly politically correct for a rival coach to say so during the run- up to Wembley, but West believes Leeds would be nowhere near the place if it was not for his successor as Wigan captain.

"I think they would be struggling without him," he says of Hanley. "He leads from the front, he leads by example and that is of great importance to them."

The trouble with Hanley over the last eight years has been his hostile off-field persona, although even that has mellowed this season. After a long cold war, he has started talking again - although not this week, when all Leeds players have been off-limits. It has been an overdue reminder that he can, when he wishes, be quite charming.

Part of the reason lies in the hard word put on him by Lindsay about what he needed to do in order to retain his job as Great Britain coach - a job which, for all his superficial diffidence and the possibility that he will walk away from it, he values highly.

The surprising thing has been that, once he has begun to dismantle the barriers separating him from the media, he has found that he rather likes the more relaxed atmosphere that the change creates. There have been times this season when he has been positively affable and the transformation has never been more vividly illustrated than in his participation in ITV's Sport in Question earlier this month. Not only was he willing to talk cogently about the Super League and related matters, he was also chipping in with his opinions on football and snooker.

Perhaps the ARL want him as a spokesman. Tomorrow, because of rather than despite the uncertainty over his future, he will show that he still has much to offer as a player.