Reaping the rewards
Phil Clarke looks at St Helens' successful youth programme and debates the play-off system.
Last Updated: 06/10/11 10:54am
Congratulations to Leeds and St Helens for getting to this year's engage Super League Grand Final.
Leeds will walk out for the fourth time in the last five years and, well, St Helens do it that often that some of their supporters just think that it's the last game of the season.
Both clubs seem to be built on strong foundations and have what people in sport and business describe as a 'winning culture'.
They must do the things behind the scenes that we never see but are essential in creating the environment to produce champions.
We often talk about the effort made with their junior development. Well I just want to tell you a brief story about how hard St Helens work at improving the players that they recruit.
They are a shining example, not just in rugby league, but to any football, cricket, rugby union or other team sport that attempts to develop young talent into first team regulars.
On Sunday, less than 24 hours after they've played in the Grand Final, several of their staff will take a tour party to Australia. The squad will be made up of the 16-and-17-year-old players that the club are looking to nurture.
They'll play against four teams in the Sydney area and get to experience the pace and intensity of Australian rugby league. There is a significant cost to all this and the staff have to work hard to fundraise for the tour, but it will certainly be worth it.
This isn't the first time that they've done it. The club took a squad of players there in 2004, of which Paul Cough and Scott Moore appeared. They did it again in 2006 when players like Lee Gaskell, Jonny Lomax, Gary Wheeler, Andrew Dixon, Matthew Ashurst, Shaun Magennis and Tom Armstrong had the experience of testing their skills against the best junior teams in the Sydney area.
Two years ago another party left St Helens, this time with players like Thomas Makinson, Nathan Ashe and Scott Hale representing the Saints Down Under.
If I told you that 14 of the 17 players who represented the club against Harlequins in Round 27 this year had been on a club tour of Australia you'd start to realise how successful they are at making dreams become a reality for so many youngsters.
The effort taken to organise and pay for a trip like this is massive. The staff involved have just completed a difficult and demanding season and yet will have their suitcases packed before the Grand Final kicks off to ensure that their conveyor belt of production doesn't stop.
Smith stands tall
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Warrington coach Tony Smith.
Firstly for the way that his team have entertained us this season, scoring almost 200 tries and finishing at the top of the table, but more importantly for me, the manner in which he spoke after his team had lost last Friday.
My old PE teacher at school used to say that we had to win with humility and lose with dignity. That's quite easy when you're only talking about sport at school, but the Warrington coach managed to do it after his team had lost in such dramatic circumstances in a game that they were favourites to win.He never looked for excuses, never questioned the officials and showed tremendous sportsmanship. If he can do that in professional sport, then I hope that so can all of the players, parents and coaches in all of the junior and amateur games that takes place this year.
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Phil, clearly the play-offs provide a great spectacle and as a Rhinos fan I am more than happy that we have reached the Grand Final, but can the current system really be justified when Leeds, a team who finished fifth, have reached the final instead of the best team playing the most attractive rugby this year? What's more the club call decision has, for the first time, come back to haunt the choosers. Leeds' form has been inconsistent at times to say the least so surely these arguments only point to the fact that the play-offs are no reward for the top teams but for mediocrity. Surely a system like the Football League's involving four teams would be more appropriate?
PHIL REPLIES: It's over a decade ago since the clubs in Super League decided to shift the big prize to the end of the play-offs. Some people like it, some people don't. As a player I was always taught to get on with things, not to worry about things that I couldn't control or influence, and as a result I haven't spent too long questioning the rights and wrongs of the current format.
It seems to add to the excitement for both the players and fans and I've never heard any of the players or coaches complain about it. I doubt you'll see an interview with a Warrington player who says that they are the real champions.
I'm not a fan of the club call decision, but again, if the people who get paid to decided these things can convince the clubs to go with it, then I'll accept that and see where it takes us.
I don't for one second think that Warrington's decision to play against Leeds gave them any extra motivation. You're not telling me that the Rhinos could try any harder than they were prepared to do after making sacrifices for 10 months and going through so much pain to get within 80 minutes of the Grand Final.
Every player, coach, administrator and supporter of rugby league knew the rules on the January 1. We all know that it was possible to finish eighth, lose more games than you won, concede more points than you scored and still get a chance to lift the Big Trophy at Old Trafford.
Personally, I think that a Top 8 play-off is too many from a 14 team competition, but again, I don't get paid to influence this. The rules are the rules.
In my mind professional sport is all about providing enjoyment and entertainment for others. From what I saw on the faces of the St Helens and Leeds supporters last weekend the play-offs certainly did that.
Widening the net
Phil, Do you think it is right that Steve McNamara is trying to 'poach' players from Australia? Apparently the latest player in his sights is Daly Cherry-Evans. What kind of message does that send out to some of our British born and bred players and about the quality we are producing in our leagues?
PHIL REPLIES: I don't know if the word is 'poach', that usually implies that you're catching something illegally on someone else's territory. As far as I can see he's doing nothing but widening his net when it comes to recruiting eligible players.
Let me ask you a question: "What was the nationality of the player who scored the winning try for New Zealand against Australia in last year's Four Nations Final?"
I'll let you think for a while and say that my initial reaction was one of disappointment when I heard about Rangi Chase making the England squad. He's a brilliant player and I've loved watching him play this year if we are not careful we'll end up with Australia playing Australia A.
Nathan Fien was the try scorer in Brisbane last year for the Kiwis. He's Australian and was born in Queensland. Just like Rangi Chase, he qualified under Residency rules and has been an important part of their squad for the last few years.
I've almost stopped worrying about where people come from in international sport and just try to enjoy the game. The same thing happens in cricket, athletics, rugby union and football even, although more in other countries than here. I'm just going to go along and try to enjoy it.