A mission for super heroes

Credibility of rugby league's new era stands or falls by the ability of the players to work a minor miracle
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The Independent Online
PROFESSIONAL rugby league players perform small miracles every time they step on to the pitch. No sportsmen in the world routinely take and give such punishment while retaining the stealth and speed they need to do their jobs.

From Friday, they will need to work a bigger miracle. They have to regain credibility for a radical restructuring of the British game, a credibility that has been draining from it throughout the past year's lead-up to Super League.

The entire scheme is beset by doubts, at both the domestic and the international level. Now the players must allay those doubts - and they could do so, just as they saved the World Cup.

They have a formidable task. An unsatisfactory transitional winter season and the legal battles that still rage around Super League in Australia - with their long-term implications for the parallel venture in Britain - have been the worst possible preparation. Clubs are desperately worried about the future; spectators are utterly confused. But this is not the time for anyone, even those who thought that the pounds 87m Murdoch deal had a fishy smell from the start, to say "I told you so". It is time to focus on the job in hand: first to win back the public that has become disaffected and then to attract new devotees.

Lazy-minded clubs who believe that summer rugby is automatically going to bring better crowds are in for a rude awakening. There is obviously something attractive about watching the game in better weather but rugby league is seriously underestimating the competition it faces for the leisure time of its potential public. In northern towns on a Sunday afternoon, rugby league has virtually had the field to itself. Now it will have to battle against all the normal counter-attractions of summer, plus a particularly heavy programme of other sports. With European Championship football being held in England this year, and the Olympics being beamed in from Atlanta, the game could not have picked a more difficult year to change horses.

And yet there are possibilities here for the sort of spectacle that will give the code a breadth of appeal that it has never enjoyed in its first 100 years. Some of the clubs' ideas for what constitutes pre-match entertainment sound kitsch in the extreme (the country and western theme seems popular) but, if they can put together a programme that includes an Academy match as well as the Super League fixture, a bit of fun for the kids and the facility to wander around and get something decent to eat and drink, that will be progress that should reap some reward. It is just rather difficult to imagine many clubs getting it right.

Where it really needs to be right is on the pitch. Here there are two distinct schools of thought. There are the staunch traditionalists who fear that a combination of faster grounds and an accumulation of new rules that speed up play - mainly by giving the attacking side almost unlimited space at play-the-ball - will turn the game into a combination of touch football and basketball. Speedy and spectacular it might be, but it will not be rugby league.

Enthusiasts for Super League and summer rugby simply believe that the faster and slicker the game becomes, the better. No less an authority than Maurice Lindsay is on record as saying that he found the spectacle of forwards running the ball up only to be tackled by other forwards dull and unexciting.

Take the physical slog out of the equation, however, and you lose the distinctive flavour of the game. Rugby league is, to its devotees, a uniquely satisfying experience not just because its players perform such feats of athleticism, but because they do so in a setting where they are being repeatedly mugged.

Setting aside this ideological debate, one would have said a few months ago that Super League had one other overwhelming practical problem: everyone knew Wigan would win. That is a less solid contention now, because, Wigan have started to look more vulnerable than for the best part of a decade.

Not too much should be read into one defeat in the Challenge Cup, but the other signs are there that the club is slipping into the syndrome that sooner or later catches up with even the most dominant forces in sport - even Liverpool under Souness. They start to get things wrong, to make daft decisions, to lose their sure touch.

If this is happening to Wigan, who is best equipped to take advantage? Not Leeds, not yet. Although they have enjoyed another Cup run and pushed - although that is too strong a word - Wigan hardest last season, they still have glaring deficiencies. It is almost shocking that a club of their ambition should be going into Super League without a genuine pair of half-backs.

St Helens, wedding their usual dash and sparkle to the no-nonsense coaching methods of Shaun McRae, are a better bet. They look perfectly in tune with the way the game is evolving and their time could be at hand.

It is, however, at the foot of the table that much attention will be concentrated. There are three clubs over which there must be serious concern. It is important for the credibility of the rather threadbare European dimension of the Super League that Paris should be competitive.

Similarly, Super League needs a successful London Broncos. Workington Town, although merely the most publicly skint of a lot of skint clubs, could be the salvation of both when it comes to relegation at the end of the first season. Not so much Down and Out in London and Paris as Down and Out in Place of London and Paris.

One of the dangers of Super League is that the clubs outside it will wither into obscurity. The first division, though, promises an enthralling contest between the likes of Salford, Widnes, Keighley and Hull. In the second, the new South Wales club will be watched with a mixture of scepticism and hope - the same combination of emotions that will run like a thread through the whole of this first summer of rugby league's new era.