Centenary waits for the revolution

The truncated 1995/96 rugby league season kicks off tonight in the shadow of the Super League, which starts in March. Dave Hadfield looks ahead

It threatens to be a strange and disorientating experience, this last winter of professional rugby league in Britain. A transitional season is almost bound to be that way, but it is important for the game that it maintains some sort of momentum.

The impending revolution of the Super League next March is stealing the thunder of the code's centenary - little more than a week away, although you would hardly know it - but unless this final winter season is respectable the Super League will be certain to start badly.

That is the essence of the problem for clubs. Is this season, now known as the Stones Centenary Championship, a major event in its own right, or an expanded pre-season training programme for the Super League?

The winners will get pounds 75,000 and, more significant in historic terms, permanent custody of a Championship trophy first awarded to Broughton Rangers in 1902.

The 11 teams in the division which, with the addition of Paris in March, will become the Super League, will be trying to win it; but there is an inevitable feeling that it is largely a preparation for something much bigger and much richer to follow.

The theory that Wigan might treat the transitional season as something less than crucially important is the main source of hope for the others.

The England coach, Phil Larder, is on record as hoping that clubs will rest their internationals and release them for squad sessions during the lead-up to the World Cup in October.

Wigan have indicated their intention of working along those lines and giving more than the usual quota of opportunities to their young players. The trouble for the others is that, as they demonstrated without Shaun Edwards and Martin Offiah in Dublin last weekend, even below-strength Wigan sides are more than a match for the rest.

There is a potential problem for Wigan in the blueprint for the future, however. Players involved in the World Cup, whose clubs progress through the Challenge Cup (to be during the gap between the two seasons) and who will be required for the Anglo-Australian play-offs and internationals next October will play for a solid 15 months.

That is obviously too much and there will clearly be plenty of very tired players by this time next year - many of them at Wigan.

So the feeling is there, as it always must be if the rest of the league is not simply to pack up and go home, that it is at least worth keeping up the chase.

Of those chasers, St Helens could be the best equipped to take advantage of any slips. Their first-choice line-up now has a formidable look, there are plenty of young players with the capacity for improvement and their next generation showed their mettle in May by thrashing Wigan in the Academy Challenge Cup Final at Old Trafford.

Leeds have become almost traditional runners-up, but, without the inspirational presence on the field of Ellery Hanley and with one or two yawning gaps in their squad, they may be hard-pressed to achieve even that this time.

Dean Bell and Hugh McGahan have between them all the rugby league know- how and intelligence that could be asked, but it could take some time before they can lift performances at the club.

London Broncos will be watched closely for signs that they are doomed to be hopelessly uncompetitive. They need to establish some credibility before the Super League kicks off, if their inclusion in it is not to look contrived and artificial.

In what is now called the First Division, the momentum could still be with Keighley Cougars, so unlucky to win what was then the Second Division last season without earning promotion.

In the event of Paris failing to make the starting line - although the League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, is adamant that they will be ready - the winners of the First Division will be clamouring for inclusion. Nobody has more incentive to make sure they are those winners than Keighley.

CHAMPIONSHIP TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE

BRADFORD BULLS: A new name and, more relevantly, a new coach make it a highly significant season. Brian Smith is one of the few coaches in the world who can be counted on to lift a club. He will give youth a chance but might find that he needs to spend to strengthen some positions.

Major signings: St John Ellis (South Queensland Crushers), Jon Scales (Leeds), Andy Ireland (Widnes), Tommy Hodgkinson (St Helens). Departures: David Heron (retired), Dave Watson (Sydney Tigers), David Fraisse (Workington), Richard Darkes (Dewsbury), Trevor Clark (released).

CASTLEFORD: The loss of Richie Blackmore and Tony Kemp, plus a couple of key players advancing in years, makes Cas start to look a little thin. Third place flattered them slightly last season and they are unlikely to match it this time.

Signings: Colin Maskill (Doncaster), Adrian Flynn (Wakefield), Andy Shick (Redcliffe, Australia) Departures: Tony Kemp (Leeds), Richie Blackmore (Auckland Warriors), Andy Hay (Sheffield).

HALIFAX: Still trying to solve their full-back problem, Halifax have also been hit by the decision of Tea Ropati to stay in New Zealand. They could miss Michael Hagan at stand-off more than they expect.

Signings: Mike Umaga (Western Samoa), Abi Ekoku (London), Carl Briggs (Sheffield), Asa Amone (Blayney, Australia), Wayne Jackson (Doncaster). Departures: Michael Hagan (retired), John Lawless (Sheffield), Graeme Hallas, Steve Hampson (both ARL).

LEEDS: The Dean Bell-Hugh McGahan partnership at the top could work well for Leeds. They are likely to find, however, that they still need Bell on the field, to fulfil the Ellery Hanley role of setting the tempo, and they still lack a specialist scrum-half they are prepared to entrust with the job.

Signings: Dean Bell (Auckland Warriors, player-coach), Tony Kemp (Castleford), Mike Forshaw (Wakefield). Departures: Ellery Hanley (ARL), Patrick Entat (Paris), Jon Scales (Bradford).

LONDON BRONCOS: It is now or never for the capital outpost. Either the Broncos establish themselves as part of London's sporting scene over the next 14 months or they can forget it. Some influential Australians and some imaginative British signings will help, but the Broncos have a huge leap to make before they are competitive in this league.

Signings: Terry Matterson, Julian O'Neill, Paul Hauff, Leo Dynevor, Shaun Keating, Ben Walker, Russell Bawden (all Brisbane Broncos), Tony Mestrov (South Sydney), Shane Vincent (Newcastle, Australia), Paul Stevens (Wigan), Ikram Butt (Featherstone), Craig Booth (Oldham), Dave Evans (Doncaster). Departures: John Gallagher (retired), Abe Ekoku (Halifax), Sam Stewart (Hull KR), Mark Johnson (Workington), Logan Campbell (Workington).

OLDHAM: Have spent ambitiously, by their standards, giving them a chance of improving on a performance under their new coach, Andy Goodway, last season that already exceeded expectations.

Signings: Francis Maloney (Warrington), Paul Atcheson (Wigan), Ian Gildart (Wakefield) Departures: Wilson Marsh (New Zealand), Rob Myler (Warrington), Mike Neal (Wigan), Mike Kuiti (Wakefield)

ST HELENS: Started to gel as a side last season. The addition of Dean Busby and the continued development of young players such as Keiron Cunningham and Steve Prescott could make them the major threat to Wigan.

Signings: Dean Busby (Hull) Departures: Shane Cooper (Widnes), Tommy Hodgkinson (Bradford), Mark Elia (Albi), Andy Dannatt (Hull KR).

SHEFFIELD EAGLES: Their resilience and ability to regroup after the loss of star players will be tested again by the loss of Lee Jackson in the New Year. It is vital that John Lawless fulfils his potential if the Eagles are not to lose momentum.

Signings: Jerome Vincent (Villeneuve), Andy Hay (Castleford), John Lawless (Halifax), Sonny Whakarau (Doncaster). Departures: Carl Briggs (Halifax), Alex Thompson (Newcastle Knights, Australia).

WARRINGTON: It is the literal truth to say that they have spent big this summer. Three of their new recruits are giants in their positions, but there are uncertainties over how much value Warrington will get from any of them. The other question is whether Jonathan Davies can bounce back after a disappointing spell in Australia.

Signings: Mark Jones (Hull), Dave King (Warrington), Andy Currier (Featherstone), Peter Livett (Woolston). Departures: Francis Maloney (Oldham), Rob Myler (Oldham), Rowland Phillips (Workington), Kevin Ellis (North Queensland), Tukere Barlow (New Zealand), Allan Bateman (Cronulla).

WIGAN: Too many players have gone for Wigan to be 100 per cent confident of maintaining their domination. The signs are good, however, that players such as Nigel Wright, Simon Haughton and Scott Quinnell can fill the gaps. Most vital of all is Andy Farrell, whose goal kicking can ease the pace of Frano Botica's (at least temporary) absence and whose class in the back row will compensate for that of Phil Clarke and Denis Betts.

Signings: Paul Barrow (Widnes) Departures: Paul Atcheson (Oldham), Paul Stevens (London), Phil Clarke (Sydney City Roosters), Denis Betts (Auckland), Frano Botica (Auckland), Mike Neal (Oldham).

WORKINGTON TOWN: The loss of a shrewd coach like Peter Walsh is bound to hamper Workington, although the caretakers, Billy McGinty and Phil McKenzie, are men of character. They will need to be, because this is going to be tough.

Signings: David Fraisse (Bradford), Mark Johnson, Logan Campbell (both London), Rowland Phillips (Warrington). Departures: Kyle White, Mark Mulligan (both to Australia).

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