Celebration a slow burn

Dave Hadfield believes the game can turn its back on all the turmoil
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The Independent Online
NOT for the first time in its 100-year history, rugby league on the field is being asked to make up for all the turmoil off it.

The Halifax Centenary World Cup has its political dimension, to be sure. It can hardly avoid that when England and Australia, who open the tournament next Saturday, and might be expected to close it three weeks later, are on opposite sides of an often vicious argument about the future of the code.

But even the most partisan pro- and anti-Super League factions agree on one thing. This is the time to put all the internecine strife to one side and concentrate on putting on a show. Fortunately, the World Cup is capable of being a show to remember.

Rugby league people are a fiercely self-critical lot, and much of the denigration of the concept of a World Cup comes from within the game. Since its first appearance on the calendar, at the instigation of the French in 1954, it has frequently been unloved and unwieldy.

From inside and outside the game, the same question has always arisen: How can a sport played to any standard in only a handful of countries have a World Cup that signifies anything?

For this tournament, at least, the question is misguided. Including the Emerging Nations World Cup that rides on its coat-tails, there will be 17 countries competing in Britain this month. It is not USA '94, perhaps, but how many countries truly had a chance of winning football's World Cup? Or rugby union's? And how many countries compete for baseball's World Series?

A total of 17 nations, in a sport which has always had to battle against hostile forces for a toe-hold in many of them, is no small achievement. It is something to be proud of, not to apologise for.

All of that makes it all the sadder that rugby league's Centenary, of which the tournament is the centrepiece and potential salvation, has so far been such a damp squib. It has been as if, with the game overburdened by blueprints for a radically different future, it has been considered inappropriate to celebrate the past.

The World Cup itself has looked in danger of becoming a victim of that overload. The decision to organise it from the same office that is already at full stretch trying to run the domestic game was ludicrous. The price of that folly has been to fall behind in the marketing and promotion of the event, and there is frantic activity now to try to make up lost ground.

That ground may not be made up quickly enough to produce a respectable crowd - let's say 35,000 - for the opening match at Wembley on Saturday. There is, however, every prospect that the tournament will still take off as the public realises that there could be entertainment of the very highest order on offer.

More by mischance than judgement, this World Cup is a very nicely balanced competition. Despite Australia's insistence that they have brought their best possible squad, and that it just happens not to include Super League players like Laurie Daley and Bradley Clyde, their absence evens affairs up. But as the England captain, Shaun Edwards, pointed out last week, the host nation has also lost key players - in this case to Wales.

Regardless of the result of this first Wembley meeting, there will not be much between the two countries at the end. The difference that is likely to determine the World Cup is that Australia, even without a dozen world- class players, have no obviously weak positions.

England, as their coach, Phil Larder, knows all too well, have one or two very dodgy areas, but they also have players like Gary Connolly, Martin Offiah and Paul Newlove who can win them matches.

In the England-Australia group, South Africa can be not unfairly described as the one team brought to Britain to make up the numbers, but Fiji have the individual skills to cause more than a few awkward moments.

They are, as Edwards observed again, far better equipped for league than for union and this World Cup will establish them as genuine players on the world stage.

In many ways, Wales get the best of the deal. Not only have they acquired English-born players like Kelvin Skerrett and Richie Eyres to add to the mix of their returning rugby union converts, they also have the benefit of hosting what should be the most compelling of the three groups.

France are European champions, and they showed further signs of getting themselves sorted out in New Zealand this summer, while Western Samoa, coached by a messianic figure in Graham Lowe, have the ability to embarrass their hosts in league just as they have in union. It would be a brave Welshman who would predict the results in that group, or even the eventual group-winners, with any confidence.

Even the group involving New Zealand as the obvious semi- final candidates is far from clear-cut. The Kiwis look impressive on paper, with players of real world first-XIII quality, but so far, under their new coach, Frank Endacott, they have added up to less than the sum of their parts.

Tonga might be new to the game at this level, but they have plenty of players with valuable experience in the major league-playing countries, while Papua New Guinea will be stronger and better organised for the addition of two expatriates in Adrian Lam and David Westley.

Where there is not the expertise, there will be the exotic - and that applies right down to the Emerging Nations event, where the Cook Islands (population 17,000) will fancy their chances of beating the slightly more populous United States and Russia. If the game wants a symbol for 100 years of struggle against more powerful battalions, it should perhaps be them.