Even if they do not know much about who he is, the chances are Andy Last will be a recognisable figure to anyone who has been around Hull FC at any point during the past 15 years.
Since making the transition from playing after a career-changing injury, Last has served on the staff of a succession of head coaches at the club – most recently as an assistant to former Black and Whites team-mate Lee Radford.
But in recent weeks, the 39-year-old has been pushed to the forefront after being named as Hull’s interim head coach in the wake of Radford’s departure and being appointed as one of new England head coach Shaun Wane’s assistants.
“It’s been quite strange,” Last told Sky Sports. “In my coaching career, I’ve probably stayed in the shadows and then been thrust into the spotlight over the past four or five weeks.”
Influenced by one of the greats
To understand how Last arrived at this point, you have to go back to where it all began when he was a youngster playing for the junior section of a club run by one of the city’s rugby icons.
Johnny Whiteley spent 15 years starring for Hull FC in the post-war era and later became a highly regarded coach, succeeding Roy Francis – a man whose forward-thinking approach brought about its own coaching revolution – at the club and overseeing the Great Britain team.
He maintained an involvement in the grassroots game with the Eureka amateur club too, with Last among the many rugby players in Hull to have benefited from his insight.
Indeed, those early days under Whiteley’s tutelage are still influencing him in his own coaching career.
“John used to have a multi-gym which he gave access to all of the teams,” Last said. “We would train Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and the opening to every session was a 5km run.
“John influenced me quite a lot and he’s still doing it now. He still comes down to the training ground and speaks about that fitness and that work ethic, and that’s something which has stood me in good stead.
“He’s a champion fella and he’s going to go down as one of the all-time greats.”
From playing to coaching
Spotted playing for Eureka by noted scout Mel Harman, Last joined an academy set-up which included future Hull stars Radford, Paul Cooke, Paul King and Richard Horne.
Despite graduating to the senior set-up as well, his Super League playing career amounted to a handful of first-team appearances after making his bow against Warrington Wolves in 1999.
Lee Jackson’s return to the club in 2001 left the hooker mainly featuring for the A-team. Then his career path was completely altered when he broke his tibia and fibia, plus shattered a bone in his ankle in one incident.
Although he recovered, Last admits he was never quite the same as a player. However, his hours spent talking over the finer points of rugby league with then-head coach Shaun McRae had impressed the Australian enough to offer him a role as A-team player-coach.
“They thought I would be able to influence players in the right way and also get on the pitch and give them a bit of direction, albeit not at the level of Super League,” Last said.
“I made the decision that if I cannot influence the team from a playing point of view then I can certainly influence the team in a coaching point of view, because I could lead from the front and get the boys to do as I did not just as I said.”
Coaching the club’s up-and-coming youngsters and helping them to become better players was “a breath of fresh air” for Last and he later became Hull’s head of youth.
But stepping up to coach at first-team level brought new challenges, not only because of his relative youth compared to some of the squad but also because he was working with high-profile internationals such as Australian loose forward Craig Fitzgibbon and half-back Sean Long.
The challenge at the first-team side was because I was younger than some of those players, I had to make sure I knew my stuff
“The challenge at the first-team side was because I was younger than some of those players, I had to make sure I knew my stuff,” Last said.
“I spent a lot of time watching video and pre-planning questions they were going to ask. I used to put themselves in their shoes and I’d have four or five answers.
“You had to be ready for them asking your opinion and if you knew their stuff. They would come back with several questions and then you felt you were getting them onside because they were testing the water.”
It is not only Hull who have recognised Last’s coaching ability. He was part of the England Academy set-up for their 2012 tour of Australia and was named on Steve McCormack’s Scotland staff for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
So too has recently-appointed England boss Wane, naming Last and former St Helens star Paul Wellens as his assistants, and the former is looking forward to continuing his development alongside the man who coached Wigan Warriors to multiple Super League Grand Final triumphs.
“Early on, my coaching philosophy was all about the Xs and Os, making sure I knew my stuff technically,” Last said.
“As I’ve got older, I’ve realised it’s not the be-all and end-all – there has to be a little bit more substance to what you do and that’s something I’m looking forward to working on with Shaun.
“The man-management side of things is massive and the mental side of things is massive. I’m not the finished article, I’m still learning and hope to be the best I can be.”
It is nearly 20 years since Last’s playing ambitions were curtailed, but it is difficult to imagine he would be unhappy about how things have worked out after his early start in coaching.
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