In typical cheeky fashion, the great Sean Long, who retired from rugby league this week, used a BBC interview to offer guidance on how he should be remembered as a player, saying “I want fans to remember me as a genuine, honest bloke who enjoyed a good time. A bit of a maverick on the field, a great team-mate to have in the camp and a pretty good player. If they said all those things, I'd be made up. And probably buy them a pint or slip them a tenner”.
That self-assessment is as accurate as Long’s passing and kicking game was during his prime as the scrum-half who led an outstanding St. Helens side to five Challenge Cup wins, four Super League titles and two World Club Challenge victories, and is exactly how most fans and fellow players will remember his career. Long was more than “pretty good” and had that great player’s knack of producing something special when his team was in a tight spot. Although Wigan, the hometown club that rejected him as a youngster, were the most repeatedly punished, Bradford were perhaps the most famous victims of Long’s ability to produce rabbits from hats, such as his last minute drop goal against them to win the 2002 Grand Final or his part in setting up the legendary “wide to West” last-second try in the 2000 play-offs (look up “Wide to West Try” on YouTube if you haven’t seen it before – Long, inevitably, is the one who emerges from the post try mayhem sporting the St Bernhard mascot’s head). Long’s status as an outstanding individual in what is the ultimate team sport was marked by his winning a record three Lance Todd Trophies, awarded to the man of the match in the Challenge Cup Final.
As his former coach, Shaun McRae, pointed out, Long’s success and ability to make the game look easy were actually the product of him “working so hard on the training field” to make the most of his undoubted natural talent. His skills, commitment and succession of comedy hair-do’s were not the only reason, though, why Long has been one of the stand-out characters in Rugby League during the “Super League” era. It has often been said that he “had a great rugby brain but left it all out on the field” and this occasional estrangement from common-sense has led him into a series of notable scrapes.
Long’s two most notorious indiscretions were the 2004 “Dumb and Dumber” betting scandal with team-mate Martin Gleeson and his early departure from the 2006 Great Britain Tri-Nation’s tour of Australia and New Zealand. The former escapade involved a spectacularly ill-conceived attempt by the dynamic duo to use their insider knowledge of their coach’s plans to field a weakened team (not including them) at Bradford by betting on their own side to lose. The bet came in but their masterplan contained no discernible effort to cover their tracks and culminated in a three month ban.
Long’s incompetence as a drunk is part of modern rugby league folklore.
Regarding the latter incident, Long has claimed that his frustration during the 2006 tour was precipitated by an amateurish coaching regime. But his argument about the lack of professionalism was somewhat undermined by the actions that directly led to his early return home – very publicly swigging industrial quantities of Baileys from a milkshake bottle and becoming messily drunk on a flight from New Zealand to Australia.
Long’s incompetence as a drunk is part of modern rugby league folklore and provides much of the material in his entertaining, and sometimes cringe-inducing, autobiography “Longy: Booze, Brawls, Sex and Scandal”. The tales contained there include the one about him being rescued from drowning off Blackpool beach after deciding that the best way to clean some soiled white linen trousers would be to take a late night swim in them. Another slapstick episode involved a misguided early hours raid on what he thought was a team-mate’s room, which led to him leaping onto a bed containing Saints’ notoriously volatile former coach, Ian Millward, and his wife.
It does seem, though, that Long has matured greatly over recent years and it is a shame that injuries have curtailed his swansong as a (relatively) sensible elder statesman, not least for fans, like myself, of his last club, Hull FC, who could have done with some of the old magic over the last couple of seasons. In a mark of the culture of honesty and sense of responsibility that underpins rugby league, Long has expressed regret for the “selfishness and foolishness” that led to the mistakes he made in his younger days. He has also been candid about his nervousness about retiring from a game that has been his life since he was seven years old, saying that “having nothing to do with rugby league would kill me”. In view of that, it is probably fortunate that he has secured a job for next season as Assistant Coach at Salford. Many observers, not least the 2006 tour coach Brian Noble, will no doubt be watching Longy’s attempts to leap the chasm from poacher to gamekeeper with interest and a wry smile.
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