Rugby League: The silent type gets stronger

Halifax's coach is concentrating on philosophy
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The Independent Online
IN HIS own quiet way, John Pendlebury has been the most successful coach in Britain this season. Looked at in terms of the improvement achieved, what Pendlebury has done at Halifax this season puts a host of more prominent names in the profession into the shade. If that is not generally recognised, it could be something to do with the self-effacing way he goes about his job.

Pendlebury is the only English coach in the Super League play-offs, which begin for Halifax at Leeds this evening. He is also the least visible of the coaches in the Super League play-offs.

A journeyman professional rather than a high-profile star during his playing career - although it is interesting to note that the five coaches who got as far as the play-offs have not won a single international cap between them - Pendlebury has never particularly craved the limelight. "It's a responsibility to represent the views of the club to the public, but first and foremost a rugby league coach's duty is as a coach," he said. "I think I'm developing as a media person."

But this, bear in mind, is the man who managed to resign and return to the club within the space of 24 hours in mid-season without producing a decent, nuggety quote. Fortunately, his team have spoken for him, and they have done so rather fluently.

Just about everybody wrote off Halifax's chances at the start of this season, with the average prediction putting them two or three places off the bottom of the table. Instead, they have finished the regular season in third place, stealthily eclipsing several clubs who banged the drum noisily about what they were going to do this year. "My style is that I like to develop the players mentally, so that they can think on their feet and play a particular brand of football," Pendlebury said. "I have a philosophy of how the game should be played. The more you can promote the football, the more problems you cause your opponents."

It sounds simple, but no side have been more effective at off-loading the ball in the tackle. At its most typical, this sees the lightning-fast hooker, Paul Rowley, or the clever Australian scrum-half, Gavin Clinch, following big forwards like Karl Harrison, Kelvin Skerrett and Des Clark and feeding off them.

But Pendlebury's ideal is that every player should be capable of making decisions and setting up play and every player should be willing to get there in support. It's closer to total rugby than anyone thought they would ever see from Halifax. But it would not work without a tremendous unity of purpose - and Halifax have unquestionably had that this season.

"Team spirit comes from a blend of 20-odd personalities within an organisation, all aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses," Pendlebury said. "It's those players who really deserve the pats on the back. It's a good mix. We've got four or five experienced blokes, some good younger players and others, like Gavin Clinch, who just needed to be involved in a side playing winning football for them to put their best foot forward."

Clinch has been arguably the find of the season. Halifax had lacked the right scrum-half for years and, although the former St George player was highly recommended, it was only when he arrived and played that they knew they had found the missing piece in the jigsaw. "He's not the quickest on his feet, but he's quick between the ears," said Pendlebury, who has also watched with satisfaction as his other half-back, Cris Chester, has visibly matured over the season.

The veterans, like Harrison and Skerrett, have been nursed through training and have stayed fit. Perhaps most remarkable of all, Gary Mercer came over from tonight's opponents, Leeds, and rediscovered the art of running forward, rather than sideways.

Not that it has all been smooth progress. There was that resignation - triggered when Pendlebury blew up, in his undemonstative way, about a lack of unity at boardroom level. Players turned up for their next training session, found him there as though nothing had happened and carried on as usual. That's John Pendlebury; gets the job done, stands up for what he believes. Just don't expect him to make a big drama out of it.