Rugby league great Ellery Hanley returns to coaching for the first time since 2008 as he takes charge of the Combined Nations team to face England; watch Saturday’s international double-header at the Halliwell Jones Stadium live on Sky Sports Arena from 3pm
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 16/06/22 2:29pm
From dealing with injuries and suspensions to having to ask players to change their plans for a weekend away, Ellery Hanley has faced some unexpected challenges in his first head coach appointment for 14 years.
But for the man who will take charge of the Combined Nations All Stars against England on Saturday and is near universally regarded as one of the greatest ever to play the game of rugby league, there are some things which never change.
Hanley has not served in a head coach position since guiding Doncaster to promotion from League One in his sole season in charge in 2008 yet has maintained close contact with the sport, not least of all through his role as chairman of the Man of Steel judging panel.
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And while there are some facets of rugby league which have evolved in the intervening years, the former Great Britain and St Helens boss knows the basics stay the same ahead of this weekend’s international, live on Sky Sports.
“The game has evolved, yes, but the format of the game and the framework has stayed exactly the same,” Hanley, who guided Saints to Super League Grand Final glory in 1999, said.
“You still have to defend, you still have to make your first-up tackle and control the ruck area, you have to play the ball at plus-one breakneck speed and with a tidy play-the-ball as well. Your skills you have to bring to the game have to be spot on and you have to have a basis of fitness as well.
“I’ll give you a simple, classic example of the game: Both sides of the ruck have to move up – you know you’ll get found out if you don’t, it’s as simple as that.
“If your discipline isn’t good, you’d get penalised for that. All of the really big areas, nothing has changed for me.”
Saturday’s match at the Halliwell Jones Stadium will see Hanley pit his coaching wits against a former Wigan and Leeds team-mate and close friend in England boss Shaun Wane, who is eager to make up for the 26-24 defeat against an All Stars side overseen by experience Australian coach Tim Sheens last year.
Wane, a rumbustious forward during his own playing days, rates his opposite number this week as the best he played alongside and fully expects him to have the Combined Nations prepared to give England the best test possible ahead of a home World Cup later this year.
“I played with some great players, some unbelievably world-class players, but Ellery was the best,” Wane said.
“He was very, very competitive, his desire to win was through the roof and how he trained – he was just a really impressive bloke.
“I played with Andy Gregory, Andy Platt, Shaun Edwards – some great, great players, but Ellery was head and shoulders above.
“It’ll be a real test and I know Ellery unbelievably well, and he’ll want to win as well. He’ll have his players pumped and ready, and it’s going to be a good hit-out for us.”
Hanley, in turn, is equally complimentary about the coaching skills of a man who guided Wigan Warriors to four Grand Final and two Challenge Cup final triumphs during his seven seasons in charge of the Cherry and Whites.
Indeed, he does not believe England could have a better person to lead them into the World Cup, which they are aiming to bring back to these shores for the first time in 50 years.
“I think they’ve got a wonderful person and extremely good coach in Shaun Wane, so they’re under the right guidance and stewardship in the direction they want to go in,” Hanley said.
“I say Shaun is excellent for the job is because…I played with him so I know his pedigree and his background, I know how good he is and what he expects from his players.
“He doesn’t leave any stone unturned and doesn’t ask the players to do anything he wouldn’t have done.”
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Of course, that friendship and lengthy association between the pair will be put to one side this week and Hanley is in no mood for giving England a gentle warm-up as part of their preparations for rugby league’s global gathering in October and November.
This will be a Combined Nations team very much moulded in his image and it is clear that competitive spirit burns as brightly and fiercely as ever inside the 61-year-old despite him having not laced up his boots in anger since retiring from playing a quarter of a century ago.
“[England] know they’re going to be facing some very stiff challenges because our boys in our squad aren’t going to roll over and I’d be exactly the same if I was some years younger and in this Combined Nations squad,” Hanley said.
“I can tell you now, there’s no way I’d be turning up just to give England a run-out. I’m playing forcefully and having a purpose about being in the Combined Nations side.”
Watch England Women against France followed by England’s men taking on the Combined Nations All Stars in the international double-header at the Halliwell Jones Stadium live on Sky Sports Arena from 3pm on Saturday.