Bates Bates steps into the spotlight

Dave Hadfield on the World Cup for the lesser lights
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The Independent Online
With England, Australia and the like out of the way for a week, the real business of the Halifax Centenary World Cup can get under way.

As far as the true rugby league train-spotter is concerned, the main event starts today, when the Cook Islands play the United States in the first match of the Emerging Nations World Cup at Featherstone.

So, it's goodbye - for now - to Shaun Edwards and Brad Fittler and hello to Robert Balachandran and, double use of names being considered a virtue on the Cooks, to Bates Bates and Tangimetua Tangimetua.

The opening fixture sums up the romance of an event that has been waiting to happen for some time. Rugby league does not have the global coverage that is claimed, somewhat dishonestly, for union. What it does have is plenty of pockets of activity in places which are just about as different from each other as could be conceived.

On the one hand, we have the Cook Islands, population 17,000, with one road, a clockwise bus, an anti-clockwise bus and a wealth of league players.

On the other, countries like the United States and Russia, where Rugby league is a small part of the sporting fabric of a vast nation. Part of the appeal is that, when the Cooks take on the States at Post Office Road tonight, they will be favourites to win. Unlike the World Cup proper, which strained credulity by incorporating South Africa at a stage when it would probably still struggle against the Cooks, the Emerging Nations tournament is not short of numbers.

It could have invited Canada, Japan or Italy, all of whom have played competitive rugby league at some level over the past year. Indeed, it is one of the mysteries of centenary year why they did not rope one of them in, so as to complete two groups of four and make the competition look a little neater.

As it is, the Cooks, USA, Russia and Scotland will form one group, with Ireland, Moldova and Morocco in the other, all leading to a final at Gigg Lane, Bury, on 24 October.

The competition will be an odd mixture of exotic strangers - hello again, Mr Bates, or may I just call you Bates? - and familiar figures reclaiming their birthright. Those in the later category include Alan Tait, the Leeds and Great Britain full-back, who has given up the chance of a place with England in that other World Cup in order to captain Scotland.

That is indicative in the depth of pride involved in representing the game's minnows. Ireland, for instance, were overwhelmed by the number of British professionals wanting to use family links to qualify for them.

THE SEVEN CONTENDERS

COOK ISLANDS Tiny South Pacific paradise, but plenty of ex-pats playing to a good standard in New Zealand. They also have the powerful Oldham forward, Jason Temu, and start as tournament favourites.

IRELAND Big on spirit and with a good seasoning of experienced professionals, including the Leeds physio, Seamus McCallion, making a playing comeback. Should be good enough to win Group Two.

MOLDOVA A new republic, whose other claim to fame is beating Wales at football. Have the advantage of being largely composed of full-time professionals from the well-established Tiraspol club.

MOROCCO Raw in terms of experience, but they have some French-based players and Hussain M'Barki, once with Fulham, now the driving force behind the game in his homeland, on their playing roster.

RUSSIA Big, powerful and athletic, the only thing the Russians need is more polish and sophistication. Will be confident against the USA, having beaten them there last year.

SCOTLAND Good pros like Alan Tait, Hugh Waddell and Darrall Shelford - a New Zealander with Scots blood - have to lead some beginners. Could be the nucleus of a proposed club in the Scottish borders.

USA Probably the most basic side in the competition, but they have the asset of a former Sydney first-grader in scrum-half, David Niu, and plenty of strapping individuals to run off him.

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