Bulls charge into new world

After Super League the curtain rises on a different league as the hemispheres prepare to collide; Dave Hadfield weighs up the leading contenders for a compelling competition
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The Independent Online
The World Club Championship, which kicks off in all its convoluted glory on Friday, will be an easier competition to enjoy than to understand.

Like much in the bright, new world of Super League, it does not stand up to a great deal of detailed scrutiny. It is a manufactured tournament, unwieldy and ponderous in the extreme, and unlikely ever to be played again in quite this form.

But to anyone fascinated by the hemispheric struggle for supremacy that is international rugby league, it is all the more irresistible for its eccentricities. The heartlands of the game are separated by 12,000 miles of ocean; we have never rubbed shoulders with each other on quite this scale before and may never do so again.

It is a massive undertaking. To fly four Australian clubs - and one doing the extra mileage from New Zealand - to Europe at the same time as taking six from Britain in the opposite direction, is the sort of thing that administrators dream up over late-night brandies and generally forget again soon after.

Largely because of the need at the time to show that Super League can offer international competition at club level - which the Australian Rugby League cannot - this was one wacky idea that did get off the drawing board. And thank heavens it did. It is hard to imagine how else we would ever have had the oppor- tunity to get up at 5.30 in the morning to watch Salford play Adelaide, live from South Australia.

The great merit of the World Club Championship lies not in its rickety structure but in the hugely attractive individual events it produces; St Helens v Auckland, Warrington v Cronulla and Bradford v Penrith all on the first weekend in Britain, for instance.

The immediate lure of games like that lies not in the way that they will mysteriously lead to quarter-finals and semi-finals some weeks down the track, but in what they will tell us about the relative fortunes of the sport itself under its new rulers on both sides of the world.

On the face of it, Britain has fared better. For richer, for poorer, the game here is at least pulling in approximately the same direction, with even those who retain a healthy scepticism about the motives and methods behind Super League and summer rugby conceding that, since it is what we've got, we'd better make a success of it.

The situation in Australia is still very different. Two rival competitions are fighting for, but generally failing to win, the public's approval. Only one of them is represented in this adventure and, as Bradford's Steve McNamara pointed out last week, it is not really a World Championship without players such as Brad Fittler and Steve Menzies, who are affiliated to the ARL.

Even blue chip operations such as the Brisbane Broncos and the Canberra Raiders have struggled to pull a crowd this year and the evidence of much of the action that we have seen here via Sky is that the game in Australia has lacked some of its traditional intensity.

It will still be the case that the Australians enjoy a greater depth of playing talent, but by no means as certain that they will be going into these championships at the height of their powers. That should provide opportunities for British clubs to come through a maze of qualifying procedures that recall nothing so much as the complicated court etiquette in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy to have a decent stab at winning the thing.

It is designed for four European clubs to reach the quarter-finals and, provided they are by some quirk of fate the right ones, then they can go further. The Great White Hopes must be the Bradford Bulls. Not a classical rugby team in the manner of some Wigan sides of recent memory perhaps, but they have a power and relentlessness that will overwhelm all but the very best.

In McNamara, Stuart Spruce and Brian McDermott, they have players who are outstanding in their various roles, while Robbie Paul, fresh from the enforced rest since he damaged his foot at Wembley, is set to explode on to the world stage. Provided he is fully fit, Paul has the unpredictable spark that could ignite the whole affair.

As a team, though, there is no rivalling Wigan's depth of experience. Their achievement in winning the World Club Challenge - and what a pathetically simplistic concept that now looks - in Brisbane in 1993 is the only one remotely comparable with what a British team will have to do to win this competition.

True, only 6 of the 17 who played that night are still with the club, but there is such a thing as collective know-how, passed on from one generation of players to another.

They have a fully mature Andrew Farrell, arguably the most complete player in the world, and he now has henchmen he clearly enjoys working with in Nigel Wright and Tony Smith.

The World Club Championship has come a month too late for St Helens, who have mislaid their halo completely since Wembley, but for Wigan the timing could be just about perfect. It might be hard to explain to the uninitiated just how they got there, but a final involving them or Bradford against Brisbane or Canberra in October would be all the justification the competition needs.

Fixtures and format

CLUBS in Europe and Australasia have been divided into two pools, within which they play trans-hemespheric opposition at home and away. From those games, separate British and Australasian tables will be drawn up to decide the quarter-finalists. The three top-placed British clubs in Pool A - plus the winner of a play-off between the fourth side and the top team in Pool B - will then play Australasian opposition for the right to go into the semi-finals, one in each hemisphere. The final will be in Australia on 18 October.

First-phase matches in Europe: 6 June St Helens v Auckland; 8 June Paris v Hunter; Warrington v Cronulla; Castleford v Perth; 9 June Bradford v Penrith; 13 June Castleford v Hunter; 14 June Bradford v Auckland; 15 June Sheffield v Perth; 16 June St Helens v Cronulla; 20 June Bradford v Cronulla; Sheffield v Hunter; 21 June Paris v Perth; 22 June St Helens v Penrith; 23 June Warrington v Auckland.

Famous five: Men who bear testimony to the strength of the southern game by Dave Hadfield

Steve Kearney

Auckland Warriors

ON the New Zealand tour in 1993, Kearney survived a fall from a hotel balcony in Carcassonne, landing on his head on the pavement three floors below. After that, opponents' tackles do not bother him unduly. A world-class second-rower, Kearney has captained his country and has been one of the few unqualified successes of the Auckland Warriors' troubled first two years. His ability to unload the ball one-handed is a match for anyone in the game and should have made the combination with his Auckland team-mate Denis Betts well-nigh irresistible.

Andrew Ettingshausen

Cronulla

THE golden boy of Australian rugby league since Adam was a lad, the player they call ET has shown astonishing durability and is still a pacy and polished performer be it at full-back, centre or wing. A marketing man's dream throughout his lengthy career - although he once sued a magazine for printing full-frontal photographs of him emerging from the showers - Ettingshausen is one of the undisputed greats of the modern game. There is class about everything he does and his new role as the elder statesman in a young Cronulla team suits him well.

Tony Iro

Hunter Mariners

IT was his younger - but not necessarily smarter - brother, Kevin, who persuaded Wigan to take Tony as well when they signed him 10 years ago, omitting to tell them that Iro senior had only played a couple of games of league. You could argue now, though, that Tony has been the more enduring talent. Primarily a winger for Wigan, he has had a fine career in Australia as a second-row forward. His natural intelligence - he is as articulate as Kevin is monosyllabic - has served him well in that role and his ability to keep the ball alive will be important. Kevin, on the other hand, is injured again.

Craig Gower

Penrith

THE Panthers have a reputation for breeding outstanding young players - and Gower is the latest in a distinguished line. At 18, he was regarded as a prospect for a first-team place at stand-off this season. Instead, he has established himself so convincingly at hooker that he has played in that position for New South Wales and Australia as well. Even by the give-youth-its-head standards of Australian sport, his rise has been meteoric, but those who know him say that it has been no fluke and that he will be around at representative level for a long, long time to come.

Scott Wilson

Perth

THE Western Reds have a name as a home for the most troublesome rebels in the game - Julian O'Neill and Mark Geyer, plus all the other usual suspects. But none has had a more stormy career than Wilson. Briefly with Salford, he has twice been suspended and sacked by clubs after failing drug tests, until he ran out of final warnings in Perth. Originally a full-back, he has been converted to stand-off and has been able to show that there is substance behind all the controversy by becoming the man who made the Reds tick during their climb to respectability this season.

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