Rugby League: West casts a long shadow

Their coach's exit seals an alarming decline at Wigan, says Dave Hadfield
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The acrimonious departure of Graeme West from Central Park yesterday breaks a link to the days a decade and a half ago when Wigan were ambitious upstarts rather than a rugby league club in decline.

"As soon as we saw Graeme, both the player and the man, we knew that this was the sort of figure we could build a team around," the former Wigan chairman, Maurice Lindsay, has said of his arrival in 1982.

Much of Wigan's success since then has revolved around the towering West, who as player, captain, back-room man and, for the past three seasons, head coach, has been one constant in a revolving cast, but whose unwillingness to be pushed upstairs into a management role has seen him, in effect, sacked.

The job as coach was the one he had almost given up hope of getting, having been passed over in favour of, first, John Monie and later John Dorahy. But when Dorahy was sacked amid recriminations that make West's leave-taking look like a friendly handshake in the directors' car park, he was the man entrusted with restoring stability.

He was the players' choice - or at least of an influential core, who had bridled under Dorahy - and the early indications were that they were more than willing to run through the proverbial brick wall for him. They won the Premiership in style, but the way they beat the Brisbane Broncos to win the World Club Challenge was perhaps his finest moment. The squad was relaxed and unified. After the upheavals of the Dorahy regime, it seemed that West's low-key approach was what had been required all along.

There was little reason to revise that view the following season, when Wigan won everything in sight; nor the next winter, when they carried off the Centenary Championship.

By then, however, the loss of too many outstanding players was starting to eat into Wigan's dominance. Defeat in the Challenge Cup by Salford sent out waves of recrimination that are still muddying the waters at Central Park, and when St Helens deprived them of the first Super League championship as well, the first murmurings about West's position began to be heard. Players who had once seemed willing to play their hearts out for him, no longer appeared as motivated in the vital matches.

For his part, West was becoming increasingly depressed by the draining of Wigan's once awesome resources. This was all relative, of course; most clubs would have killed their bank managers for a squad as strong as the one at his disposal. But you can name a team of internationals who have gone since West took over. It would read: Atcheson; Lydon, Bell, Mather, Offiah; Panapa, Botica; Skerrett, Dermott, Platt, Betts, McGinty, Clarke. Some large pairs of footwear to be filled there - you can also add Quinnell, Tuigamala and, if the Australian Rugby League has its way, Robinson and Connolly to the list.

In return, there has been the occasional exciting acquisition, such as Henry Paul, but the list is a lot shorter. West well knows that this imbalance has been forced by Wigan's financial predicament, but if he had to manage on limited resources, he would have liked to be able to marshal them himself.

This winter's recruitment has been a case in point. Of the four players Wigan have signed, two are New Zealanders, who will need a good deal of work before they are ready for regular first-team rugby and were not even in the 17 for the cup defeat by St Helens 10 days ago.

Another, Ian Sherratt, was signed without any apparent input from West, who was away with the squad in Devon at the time. He was on the bench at Saints and was left there even when the Wigan forwards were taking a pounding. The contrast with Shaun McRae, whose use of his substitutes has been one of the hallmarks of Saints' success over the past 12 months, was stark.

So was the comparison between how much their players seemed prepared to suffer for them, with the result that McRae has a job, while West, for the moment, does not.

He remains well liked and respected in the game and will doubtless re- emerge, but the absence of his long shadow from Central Park is a reminder that times there really have changed beyond recognition.