If you think that Vern Cotter has it tough in the Six Nations having to make limited resources go a long way both on and off the field then spare a thought for Steve McCormack, Scotland’s national rugby league coach these last 12 years.
Over the coming weeks McCormack’s cobbled-together Scotland squad must play the three best teams in the 13-man game in quick succession; there are animals in abattoirs who have been given better odds of success. The Scots kick off the entire Four Nations tournament with a match next Friday against the reigning champions, Australia’s Kangaroos.
“We have earned the right to be in this tournament,” argues McCormack, “by our performance in the last World Cup and by winning the European Cup.”
The Four Nations is held every two years and alternates between the northern and southern half of the globe. The three big guns are always there, Australia, England and New Zealand, with one more qualifier from the Pacific or Europe depending. As McCormack claims, Scotland duly won the European Cup but they did so back in 2014. Last year, the Scots finished fourth... of four. McCormack remains relentlessly upbeat, explaining that he was blooding a host of younger players and you suspect that positivity may be a prerequisite for a Scotland coach in rugby league.
His claims regarding the 2013 World Cup hold a little more water. Scotland drew with Italy and beat Tonga and the USA to make it through to the quarters where they ran into the brick wall that was the New Zealand Kiwis. Still it was a good tournament for the Scots and especially for their winger Matty Russell, one of only two players who were born in Scotland (Batley Bulldog David Scott the other), with the winger managing three tries in as many matches.
Born in Irvine to a Scottish father and an English mum, Russell moved to Wigan aged one as his accent confirms. He was offered a scholarship at the local grammar school to play union but turned it down to concentrate on his first true love, Wigan.
The winger was picked up by the club at an early age and started his career at Wigan before going on loan at Hull, doing a stint with the Gold Coast Titans in Australia (too young perhaps at just 18) and then returning home where he signed with Warrington Wolves. So it must have been a difficult time at the start of October when Russell lost the Super League Grand Final to one former club, Wigan, just a few weeks after coming second in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley to another, Hull.
“The first final at Wembley was a great experience for me,” he says of the Challenge Cup final, where Warrington were leading 10-0.
“But at the same time we had the game pretty much won at one stage, we were flying, and any neutral will say we should have won. Credit to Hull because they came through in the last 20 minutes which is when we lost it.
“The last final we could have won that game.” Warrington were again ahead, this time 6-2. “We threw everything into it and just came up short .”
However, as he continued: “But just to be involved in those finals was massive for me, we’re the league leaders too, so we were one of the most consistent teams in the competition; happy with that.
“Overall it’s been a really good year for Warrington and for me, just a shame about the finals.”
If Russell is daunted by the challenges facing this Scotland squad in the weeks ahead he hides it pretty well, insisting that it is business as usual. He plays against some top class players week in and week out in Super League and, he explains, he’ll be doing exactly the same over the next few weekends.
Russell knows that the Scots, a mix of players from England’s Super League, Championship and Australia’s National Rugby League, have been written off as a bunch of mercenaries but he tells a good story about North Queensland Cowboy Kane Linnett during the 2013 World Cup, talking about goosebumps all over his body when the bagpipes struck up.
“It is probably the toughest job for a manager in the competition,” he says of McCormack’s task to mould these disparate players into a functioning team in just two weeks. In Australia they have players who play together each week. Even in England there are four Warrington lads who are playing together and they know each other. There are only one or two lads who play at the same club for Scotland and we have only been together for a week and have to gel as much as the others.
“But people actually want to play for Scotland now. A lot of times you read stuff in the press about granddads regarding qualification but I can genuinely say that everyone here has bought into it. They are proud to play for Scotland and they can’t wait.”
Those supporters may not have a win to cheer – in this history of this competition no side outside of the big three has ever won a game – but success can be measured in many ways as Russell explains.
“England are up there with the best, they have a new coach and they are trying to prove a point. I play against their players week in and out in Super League so I know their strengths and weaknesses just as they know ours. I think it will be a good battle, a close game, I think we’ll really push them, I couldn’t pick a winner from that game.
“A win would obviously be nice,” Russell continues. “Like Steve [McCormack] said before we came into camp, we want to make a statement because we don’t want to be these jokers who are put into the competition just to make up the numbers, which I have heard from the Aussies at Warrington. It’s all banter but some people think that.
“We want people to see Scotland in the Four Nations pushing Australia and being competitive. “
Russell recounts a story of his grandfather who was a lifelong Wigan fan, at least before Junior joined Warrington. Now he is a Wolves’ fan and Russell reckons he will be swelling Scotland’s travelling support when they face Australia next Friday evening in Hull. Who says you can’t teach an old wolf new tricks.
“I am not going to say that we are going to win every game because these are the best players in the world but it’s a game of sport and anything can happen,” the winger insists.
“We have a good squad and we will surprise a few people.”