First published in Rugby League World, Issue 383 (March 2013)
Scotland head coach Steve McCormack has set his sights on qualification for the quarter finals of the World Cup, and believes that a commercially successful tournament can invigorate interest in the sport north of the border.
The Bravehearts made their debut at the top table of international Rugby League in 2000, though they finished the World Cup winless.
Eight years later they were back, and this time they went one better, beating Fiji, but again they failed to progress past the group stage.
Fast forward five years and, despite operating under what McCormack claims is the smallest budget in European Rugby League, hopes are high that the team can edge Tonga and Italy to the one available qualification spot in Group C.
“If we can get to the quarter-finals of the World Cup then I think we’ll receive a lot more publicity, which in turn will be a big boost for the game in Scotland,” said McCormack.
“We know how difficult the group is, but we would like to get out of it, and we’re the same as any team, we want to improve on our last showing.
“I think the squad is capable of doing that and once you get to that stage of the competition it is a lottery.”
Like many World Cup nations, the selection process will be an interesting one for McCormack.
He was recently quoted as saying that he’ll wait before pushing Danny Brough, who could choose to represent England or Scotland, for a final decision on where his allegiances lie, and while the likes of Daryl Clark, Graeme Horne, Michael Robertson and the Henderson brothers are also likely to be on the boss’s radar, McCormack says he’s fielded enquiries from further afield.
“I think over the last few years our aim has been to increase the pool of players eligible to play for Scotland, be that domestically or from overseas
“The big thing for me last year was just checking how good the domestic players coming through our pathways were.
“I’ve been delighted with that and over the last few years we’ve had enormous success with a very young side containing a number of domestic players.
“But there are a few Academy Super League players who’ve put their hand up as well to be involved in Scotland, not only for the World Cup, but moving forward after the World Cup, and we’ve also had a lot of NRL players getting in touch, and there are a lot of absolutely outstanding players who want to take part in the World Cup.
“I think the key to it is to ensure that whoever plays is playing for the right reasons. When they come into the team environment they need to know that they’ll be expected to play a massive part, and I think that’s always been Scotland’s strength.
“We may not have the best squad in the world, but we’ve always been a tough team to beat and a team that has the right culture beneath it.
“I’ve actually spoke to a few high-profile NRL players, and I’ve communicated the importance of the culture we have, and it is exciting.
“Striking the balance between the different types of players is the challenge. We built a bit of a legacy at the 2008 World Cup and we want to do it again in 2013.
Brough, in particular, has received criticism from some quarters due to his recent habit of switching nations, particularly ahead of major tournaments.
But McCormack says that any player pulling on a Scotland shirt this Autumn will be doing so for nothing but the right reasons.
“To be honest, every player who’s played for Scotland while I’ve been coach has been very passionate.
“Heritage for us is very important. I know there’s a lot of people hopping round and looking at different countries, but everyone’s who pulled on our shirt has taken their heritage very seriously.
“Their personalities are very important too. We want good people playing for Scotland, not just good players.
“We want to build a good culture and it is people who are proud of their heritage who’ll contribute to that, and any extra heritage players who do come on board under myself will certainly how seriously we take it.
“The ball’s not in Danny’s court,” McCormack continued, “as myself and the coaching staff are the ones who pick the team.
“We’re not waiting on any player to say they’re going to play for Scotland. We have a pool of players who are eligible to play for Scotland, we’ll discover who wants to play for Scotland, and I’ll pick the side accordingly,
“Danny is a friend. He’s always done really well for me and he did a particularly great job as captain during the 2008 World Cup, as he’s always been very passionate.
“I was disappointed when he switched to England, but I did understand his reasons. He wanted the chance to compete against New Zealand and Australia.
“I have spoken with Danny and when the time is right for to finalise my squad, I will start looking at players who are keen to play, whether that be Danny or any other player.”
Regardless of who will be available for selection to McCormack this Autumn, Scotland’s plans for success at the tournament will continue unabated.
“We’re hoping to meet up as a squad between now and the start of the tournament and there’s a possibility of a mid-season game.
“That’s something I’d certainly like and discussions are already quite advanced towards ensuring that happens, and there could be a game prior to the World Cup too.
“Those would be on top of a mid-season get-together where the squad can meet up and put some plans in place.
“With it being the biggest tournament we could possibly compete in, we want to ensure that we’re as well prepared as we possibly can be.”
And, while the players will undoubtedly benefit from time together during the year, McCormack and his coaching staff of Dave Rotherham and George Fairbairn will focus much of their attention on the opposition.
Though, with both Tonga and Italy likely to call on any number of NRL heritage stars, preparing a game plan might not be so simple.
“I know bits about the two squads,” said McCormack.
“The Italy coach, Carlo Napolitano, was actually a player I signed while I was coaching at Salford, so he’s somebody I know as a friend.
“I know his team will be well prepared and the other teams we face will be too, but we’ll do our homework.
“So at this moment in time we’ve got a rough idea of what the squads we’ll be facing will look like. The rest of the preparation will come when the other teams start narrowing down their squads.”
WORTH THE WEIGHT
With the tournament structure weighted to avoid one-sided contests, the odds are stacked against the lesser nations.
And you could name your odds at most bookmakers on a Final victory for any team outside of the big three.
But McCormack is undeterred.
“I believe the structure and the qualification paths are about right. I can understand the reasoning behind the format.
“I think the venues are outstanding too. We would have liked the chance to sell the tournament in Scotland, but on the whole I’m pleased.
“And at the end of the day, it doesn’t get any better than being involved in a World Cup.”
By: Tom Coates