IT WAS one of those events that mark out the big sporting occasion as surely as pundits dusting off their superlatives.
The captains of all the countries competing in rugby league’s World Cup were asked to pose together for a group photograph.
It made for an intimidating sight, like a multi-coloured police line-up with a group of very large, intimidating men doing their level best to look mean and pulling it off with aplomb. And then there was Scotland skipper Danny Brough, who stopped at everyone else’s shoulder. Whoever said that the best things come in small packages might have had the 5ft 8in Huddersfield Giants player in mind.
League experts are still scratching their heads over Brough’s exclusion from the England squad. The little big man won the Super League’s “Man of Steel” award a month ago, essentially the players’ player of the year, following in the illustrious footsteps of Andy Farrell and Sam Tomkins. It is the most prestigious individual honour the UK game can bestow and it must have brought blushes to the cheeks of the England coach. Steve McNamara has been in a minority of one when it comes to Brough’s abilities.
While the half-back was first capped for Scotland way back in 2004 thanks to a Scottish grandmother, the arcane rules and regulations surrounding eligibility in rugby league meant that he pitched his hat into England’s ring in 2010 and won a place in the Elite Squad. He played for the home XIII against the Exiles (a friendly, Barbarians-type fixture) but that was as far as he went with England and, to his credit, he does not dwell on what might have been.
“Obviously Steve McNamara is paid the big money to make the big decisions,” says Brough phlegmatically. “He made the decision not to put me in and I don’t hold a grudge with anybody. He is sticking with the players he’s had for the last few years. I’ve no complaints, I didn’t get in, you bite the bullet and move on. When Steve McCormack asked me to play for Scotland I jumped at the chance.”
All of which sounds eminently reasonable until Brough reveals that he was told way back in February, when the Super League season had barely started, that England would not require his services. McNamara may yet repent his hastiness over the coming weeks.
Still, England’s snub is good news for Scotland and, having experienced both, Brough is ideally placed to comment on any differences between the two camps… England expects, while Scotland hopes?
“You probably would say that,” agrees Brough. “I think England get a lot more funding than the Scottish camp. As far as all the boys go, I had a good time in the England camp and I’m having a good time in the Scottish camp now. Obviously Scotland’s camp is a lot worse off but you just work with what you’ve got. There’s a good set of lads. I’ve not got a bad word to say about any camp.
“The squad we’ve put together, we’ve had a couple of bonding sessions. Obviously, we’re were not too familiar but we’ve got to know each other really well, and the more you train the better you get, and you work people out as you play alongside them so we all seem to be enjoying each other’s company. When we first got together we had a session in the pub all together, nobody going out on their own and things like that. We’ve had bonding sessions in team meetings and that’s how we’ve got to know each other, and the more we train the better we understand each other.”
Scotland’s success will depend upon Brough’s understanding with his high-profile half-back partner Peter Wallace, an Australian-Scot who, until recently, turned out for the famous Brisbane Broncos and who has appeared in the electrifying State of Origin series, which would rival any World Cup match for intensity. Wallace only arrived in the UK last Monday but, according to Brough, the pair have gelled well.
“I didn’t meet Peter Wallace until last week and yeah, we’ve got a pretty strong bond. We have a laugh together and a bit of banter and we go out for food together and things like that so, yeah, we getting pretty tight. Peter’s a good bloke. We’ll mix and match, that’s how we’ll play, whichever side of the field, one will be first receiver and one will be second.”
Brough goes on to name check a few other key players including Australians Luke Douglas (Gold Coast Titans) and Kane Linnett (North Queensland Cowboys), who have been given the words to Flower of Scotland with strict instructions to have it off pat by Tuesday when Scotland face Tonga. They are tried and tested but Brough also mentions his own understudy, Callum Phillips, who turns out for Championship side Workington Town. At least the youngster will have the advantage of playing at home should he get on the field since Scotland’s first two matches are at Town’s Derwent Park ground.
Like Brough himself, Scotland are small fry in relation to the giants of the rugby league world so what can the fans reasonably expect from the “Bravehearts” who have previously only ever won one World Cup encounter?
“This year I think we have the squad to challenge to win the group,” says Brough. “If Scotland do that it means we will have won three games and qualified for a quarter-final. That’s what we are aiming at. Obviously we are realists and we know we’re not going to win the World Cup but we’ll try our best.
“I think that it’s achievable without a shadow of a doubt. You don’t get a bigger game than Tonga next Tuesday and you have to start well. We need to win the first two games to give ourselves a chance of topping the group. We need momentum and most teams do. You’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.”
If the rest of the Scotland squad share their leader’s fighting qualities they should claim a scalp or two in the coming weeks.