David Clegg Recounts The Views Of Former International Centre, And Now Salford Assistant Coach, Martin Gleeson, On The Current Internationasl Scene
Having played such a considerable amount of Youth rugby, in Australia, it is not surprising to learn that because of that, Martin actually became eligible to represent Queensland, in the State of Origin, a fact publicised by what had been his local paper during his time in Brisbane, in a press article a few day ahead of his international debut, in Sydney.
“The State of Origin is the pinnacle of rugby league, over there,” he enthuses. “It is absolutely massive, and sadly we have nothing in rugby league to compare with it over here. Although for the players, representing their country is still the greatest honour of all, in the view of the fans State of Origin even eclipses internationals now. Australia have been the top side for so long now that internationals no longer fire the fans’ imaginations in the way they used to, and State of Origin has taken over.
“If we could just beat them in a tournament once, I’m sure they’d start to take it more seriously, again.”
Unfortunately, that task has proven to be beyond us for decades, now, and Martin, with all his own personal experience of growing up and developing as a player, in Australia, followed by six seasons of playing against them at international level, is in the perfect position to identify some of the reasons for this.
“Compared to what I experienced growing up down there, the talent in the game in the UK is just so thin on the ground that trying to beat them in a full tournament becomes an absolutely overwhelming challenge,” he explains.
“We can usually get together a group of players, within the squad, who are of top quality, but then there is a drop-off, with the rest being of fairly average quality. Because of their strength in depth, even the weakest in the Australian squad are still of a very high standard; they’re all like machines, really.”
So, in those circumstances, which we really cannot change, how on earth does he believe we are ever going to get that vital series win? It would seem a lost cause.
“I’ve come to realise that where their game has progressed to, with the likes of Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, and Cooper Cronk, we won’t beat them playing the normal way because we are not as good as them,” he considers. “Instead, we will have to do something different that they are not used to – something outside the box.
“In order to beat them under normal circumstances, we would have to produce perfect rugby, while they had a really off-day, dropping a considerable amount of ball. That isn’t going to happen over a full series, so it’s no good trying to outplay them at their own game.”
A further difficulty he flags up is the intensity of the NRL compared with that of our own Super League.
“Teams in Super League can win games playing in fits and starts,” he maintains. “Individual players can choose their moment, without then having to manage the game thereafter. The NRL is so keenly fought, in comparison, that their top players have to work hard for the full eighty minutes, to get the win, and, with having to do so in every match, it becomes the norm.”
Of course it does not help that although we have, on occasions, won the odd game here and there, the fact that there is always a decider of sorts, ends up making those odd victories nothing more than just odd victories. Martin has already highlighted the way that GB finished top of the group in the 2004 Tri-Nations, only to lose in the final, and he also has reminiscences of a number of occasions when, with minutes to go, the Aussies have stolen the match at the death, something that we have had to grow used to over the years.
Despite the fact that Scotland gave a better account of themselves in this year’s Four Nations, Martin much prefers the former Tri-Nations set up
“The Four Nations is not working because the fourth nation generally is not strong enough to be a factor in the competition,” he believes. “The Tri-Nations was better because we played each other twice, before the final. That way our players got exposed to their level of intensity throughout the whole four or five games, and had the chance of becoming accustomed to it. With the present arrangement, one of those weeks is almost like a bye, though not to be taken too literally as such.”
Now fully ensconced in the role of Assistant Coach, here at Salford, one might have expected that his eye for talent would surely lead to his benefitting his players with experiences he himself has gained at international level, and thus inspiring them to aim to attain that for themselves. In point of fact, though, he informs me that this is rather more limited than our expectations would have led us to believe.
“I might tip some people up about what they need to do to put themselves in the frame, if I felt that they had a chance,” he concedes. “Also, if I come across something within a player, I might give them some information about certain plays I’ve come across, and I occasionally remember little plays I used to do, myself, and offer those to players as further options.”
In his specific role of Assistant Coach, he is not involved in the player management side of things, being more involved with tactics, and adapting these to suit the strengths of the team.
“Because the bulk of the team have been together for a full season, these adaptations will be less experimental than last year. All the players are a known quantity, and therefore they should be much more solid and consistent in this, their second year together,” he confidently predicts of 2017.