For the time being Sean Long’s trademark flowing blond locks remain stuffed beneath a dark blue bobble hat, as the man who once revelled in the epithet of the ‘wild man of rugby league’ plots a new course that could end in the mother of all celebration parties.
The 46-year-old Long’s swashbuckling success on the pitch, winning four Super League titles and five Challenge Cups with St Helens, as well as a Man of Steel and a hat-trick of Lance Todd Trophies, was mirrored by his headline-grabbing antics off it.
After laying bare his indiscretions in a controversial autobiography published at the tail-end of his playing days in 2010, Long launched himself into a coaching career that has seen him succeed Brian McDermott as the man charged with leading Featherstone Rovers into Super League next year.
Midway through his first pre-season as head coach, thick fog swirls around the deserted stands at Post Office Road and it seems a world away from the Sydney stadium where a bandaged Long inspired Great Britain to their first win in the Australian capital in 18 years in 2006 – shortly before his tour was cut short for ‘personal reasons.’
Such fluctuating emotions might have come to define Long’s career, but he insists he hung up his boots with few regrets, and says his own experiences can provide a unique insight into the balance required to translate a vibrant team spirit off the pitch into success on it.
“I think everybody has done things that they regret in their life, but it just shows that I’m human,” Long told the PA news agency.
“Times have changed now. With the data we’ve got access to there’s no hiding places, whereas back in the day you could probably get away with a little bit. These days it’s all right to like a laugh, but you have to work hard to get to enjoy it.”
Long previously held a string of assistant coach roles, most recently with Leeds, whom he helped reach last season’s Grand Final, and as part of the French national team for this summer’s World Cup.
But he is first to admit he was surprised to be asked to step up and replace McDermott, who resigned from Rovers in September after their once-promising season petered out in the play-offs.
“I didn’t think I’d get the chance at a club like Featherstone,” admitted Long. “I had always been happy being an assistant, but for the last two or three years I’d been itching to pull the trigger and when Featherstone came looking it was a great opportunity to take the next step.
“I realised it was time for me to step up to the plate. Featherstone is a club steeped in history and the whole town is mad on rugby. I’ve got a couple of great coaches, but the buck stops with me. It is a big challenge and one I think I’m ready for.”
Long will draw on the four years he spent at Saints under Daniel Anderson, the Australian who moulded a team of individual talents into a fearsome unit that won three successive Challenge Cup titles and beat the Brisbane Broncos in the 2007 World Club Challenge.
“How he managed that team I have no idea, but he got the best out of us,” said Long. “He was quite strict but he had a bit of fun as well. He just knew how to get the best out of the individuals, to make us come together and play as a team. He was a genius.”
Featherstone have felt the pain of almost half a decade of near-misses, with two defeats in the Million Pound Game followed by running aground in the shadow of Leigh last season. They face the prospect of history repeating itself with newly-relegated Toulouse starting as favourites to regain their Super League place.
But having endured a difficult transition from his raucous playing days – stealing off from his first coaching role with Salford to scratch the itch playing part-time rugby union for Preston Grasshoppers – Long believes he is ready to add another successful and all together more sober chapter to his storied career.
“I can’t do that stuff any more,” laughed Long. “You have to take a step back and realise you’re not one of the lads.
“I played in some great teams along the way but we always worked hard for each other, we performed well on the field but we worked very hard behind the scenes. When you win a game or at the end of the season, that’s when you get to enjoy the good times.”