Connolly returns as England gamble

RUGBY LEAGUE CENTENARY WORLD CUP FINAL: If they keep their heads the hosts have class and self-belief to win in style
Click to follow
The Independent Online

England have taken a massive gamble by including Gary Connolly, who has not played for five weeks because of pneumonia, in their starting line-up for the final of the Halifax Centenary World Cup at Wembley this afternoon.

The Wigan centre was ruled out of the tournament before it even began, but such are his powers of recovery - and the faith that the England coach, Phil Larder, has in him - that he leap-frogged into the side after training yesterday, with Barrie-Jon Mather dropping to substitute.

"Gary will start the game and we hope to get at least 50 minutes out of him," Larder said.

A fit Connolly is worth his place in any side in the world and that is what the player insists he is. "A few week ago, I couldn't have dreamed of playing," he said. "But now I feel fine and I'm sure I won't let the lads down."

If England are taking a risk here, they need to take more on the field if they are to take the trophy. Although Phil Larder regards what happened in the last World Cup final three years ago as ancient history, there is an important lesson to be gleaned.

It was the one match a British side has lost to Australia at Wembley since international rugby league went back there, and it was lost because the British game-plan was predicated on not making a single defensive mistake for 80 minutes.

Great Britain tried to close the game up, made their one mistake and lost it. They need to be far more expansive today, because, if they are, they have the talent to give a marvellous tournament the pay-off line it deserves by winning in style.

Individually and collectively, England have been impressive in this World Cup. Notwithstanding the contrasting excellence of Australia's second- rowers, Steve Menzies and Gary Larson, England's back-row of Denis Betts, Phil Clarke and Andy Farrell is the best in the world.

Just as important has been how well the front row has functioned. When Karl Harrison, Lee Jackson and Andy Platt have been together, they have hardly put a foot wrong. And while the loss of a competitor like Shaun Edwards is a blow, there is a theory, shared by most of the Australians, that Bobbie Goulding is harder to read.

It is another injury, this time to Daryl Powell, that has given Tony Smith his chance at stand-off - and he has grasped it eagerly. His pace always gives him the chance of cottoning on to a half-break from a team- mate and he also more than earned his corn defensively in the semi-final victory over Wales.

Today could even be the day when Martin Offiah rediscovers his confidence. Even without him at his best, Jason Robinson and Paul Newlove rank as two of the world's most dangerous attackers and Kris Radlinski has been a revelation at full-back.

Most of all, the mood is right, with Betts, a success as replacement captain, saying: "I've never known such confidence in the team. We have a belief that we can beat anybody."

Against all this, Australia have their formidable strength as a unit. They might lack obvious star quality in some areas - Mark Coyne and Terry Hill at centre are no Miles and Meninga - but they remain ingrained with efficiency and know-how.

For any coach other than Bob Fulton, the tournament would have been full of unwelcome distractions, beginning with his tireless advocacy of the ARL versus Super League, continuing with his obligatory complaint over refereeing and the controversy over what he, and his wife, said to the director of referees, Greg McCallum.

However, Fulton thrives on these distractions. He goes out of his way to create them and England must not kid themselves that Australia will be adversely affected.

Where they can be caught out - apart from Connolly coughing on them - is by England, with an English referee on duty, continuing to play to an English idea of what constitutes lying on in the tackle.

If they keep their heads there and Australia lose theirs the way they did against New Zealand, the League will have to pay a promised pounds 250,000 bonus to England, but will save on air freight costs. The trophy will not be flying out.


at Wembley

Kris Radlinski Wigan 1 Tim Brasher Sydney Tigers

Jason Robinson Wigan 2 Rod Wishart Illawarra

Gary Connolly Wigan 3 Mark Coyne St George

Paul Newlove Bradford Bulls 4 Terry Hill Manly

Martin Offiah Wigan 5 Brett Dallas Sydney Bulldogs

Tony Smith Castleford 6 Brad Fittler Penrith, capt

Bobbie Goulding St Helens 7 Geoff Toovey Manly

Karl Harrison Halifax 8 Dean Pay Sydney Bulldogs

Lee Jackson Newastle Knights 9 Andrew Johns Newcastle Kn

Andy Platt Auckland 10 Mark Carroll Manly

Denis Betts Auckland, capt 11 Steve Menzies Manly

Phil Clarke Sydney City 12 Gary Larson North Sydney

Andy Farrell Wigan 13 Jim Dymock Sydney Bulldogs

Referee: Stuart Cummings (Widnes) Kick-off: 2.50pm BBC1