Danger of flirting with too much of a good thing

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The Independent Online
For a while nobody went near Nathan Graham. Sprawled on the turf at Wembley, his face hidden by a white cap, the Bradford full-back was a man alone with his misery.

Excitement lingered because it had been a great game, one of dramatically see-sawing fortunes, but sympathetic eyes were on Graham. "You don't get over something like that in a hurry," an old player said.

Seven minutes of spiralling intensity did for Graham, his errors under three steepling kicks from Bobbie Goulding enabling St Helens to stage a remarkable recovery. A hard game breeds stern attitudes - "I'll accept one mistake under the high ball, three is beyond my patience," a grizzled coach muttered - but Joe Lydon saw more than individual aberration. "It's easy to blame Nathan but when powerful guys are coming in under the ball you are entitled to more protection than he got," the former Wigan hero said.

It will be of no consolation to Graham that some keen-eyed observers saw a "crossover" infringement by St Helens immediately prior to the unleashing of Goulding's bombardment. "In my opinion it was a penalty for Bradford and with the ball back in their hands it would probably have been a different story," the Welsh coach, Clive Griffiths, said. "There must be a lot of dejected players in the Bradford dressing-room, not just Graham, but to my mind they were unlucky."

It is also a matter of divided opinion whether an exhilarating encounter represented the best of modern rugby league or sounded a warning.

A spectacle to thrill 76,000 at Wembley and a national television audience, the tussle fluctuating towards a record scoreline, may have raised rugby league's burgeoning profile but a note of caution was struck by professionals in the audience. In fact, to see so many points on the board, so much open-field running as a result of rule changes that provide more time and space for the development of attacks did not please everyone.

In all games, the majority of coaches are regarded as conservatives. What pleases the spectator - the football match between Liverpool and Newcastle was an example - invariably intrudes on their priorities.

A fear held by many coaches in rugby league is that alterations designed to popularise the game could be self-defeating if scores reach basketball proportions. Griffiths is not alone in thinking you can have too much of a good thing. "Under the new rules it is very difficult to defend properly," he said.

There is the dilemma for rugby league. Tested over many years, never to southern tastes, the rules became a triumph of checks and balances. There were moves the coach could make in the interests of offence, but he knew he might have to pay for them. Thus the doubts being expressed now have elements of truth.

Nevertheless, an irrefutable truth about Saturday's match was that it stood out as classic entertainment seldom bettered anywhere. Even people who have no understanding of the game, still thinking it a curious northern ritual, must have been enthralled by the skill and commitment. Steve Prescott's dandy trap and dribble when taking Goulding's neat kick, Robbie Paul's hat-trick of tries, the irony of Graham's excellence until fate crowded in on him.

Poor Graham. Performing as well as anyone out there until the roof fell on his head. First he made the mistake of forgetting that a bouncing rugby ball is sure to behave capriciously. Kieron Cunningham kept coming and Bradford's 14-point lead no longer looked a winning margin. When the last jubilant playmate had been peeled off Cunningham's back, Goulding sent in two more bombs that turned the deficit into a four-point lead, impending defeat into triumph, completing Graham's anguish.