Final curtain rises on a winter's tale

Martin Kelner looks forward to the abbreviated rugby league season that opens today
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The Independent Online
RUGBY LEAGUE returns today, rather as a married man might come back from a night of alcoholic bad behaviour - a little shamefaced, as quietly as possible, and with absolutely no idea of what might greet him when he pushes open the door.

The only certainty about this coming season is that it will be the last in which we will be able to enjoy a Boxing Day cigar on the terraces, or try out a new Christmas jumper. Savour for the final time the spectacle of two great steaming packs of forwards (directed by Lindsay Anderson, commentary by Eddie Waring) locked in battle on a northern paddy field. From March, rugby league becomes a summer sport (director, R Murdoch).

This of course is only one of the consequences of the Rugby League's acceptance of between pounds 75m and pounds 100m of News International's money. Talk of the deal - and allied High Court actions - has so dominated the close season that when Wigan and Leeds take to the field this afternoon in Dublin (don't even ask) to contest the Charity Shield they may feel, like the teams in that famous First World War soccer match in no man's land, that they are participating in some glorious irrelevance.

And this is the opener to the season which was to have been a nine-month party celebrating the doughty independence of the great northern game since its split from the Rugby Union in l895. Although the official line is that the party is still on - the abridged season that begins today is always dutifully referred to at RL HQ as the Centenary Season - it is clear even to those who see the Super League as the game's salvation that there is no longer much independence to celebrate.

Should any doubts remain on that point, have a look at the names some of the custodians of 100 years of tradition have given their teams for this Centenary Season - Doncaster Dragons, Hunslet Hawks, Bradford Bulls, Leigh Centurions. If Wigan were to announce in advance of today's match that their name was out of tune with the spirit of the times and they were changing it to Sellafield, the shell-shocked league fan would greet the news with barely a flicker of surprise.

As it is, amid all the turmoil, Wigan remain one of the few constants in rugby league. While Dennis Betts and Phil Clarke, two of their most consistent performers recently, have left for Australia, and Frano Botica has suffered a broken leg playing in New Zealand, Wigan are rich in talented reserves. They need to be, as they will be missing their captain, Shaun Edwards, with a knee injury and the Great Britain wing Martin Offiah with a back problem.

Leeds were runners-up to Wigan in all three major competitions last season and, given the summer's distractions at Headingley, it will be a tribute to their ability to keep their eye on the ball should they go one better today. After the surprising departure of their coach Doug Laughton, to be replaced by Wigan's former captain, the New Zealander Dean Bell, Leeds have spent the summer waiting for Lomu. The All Black's agent has visited Headingley and pronounced himself "impressed with the facilities"; but he has been talking to Wigan, too, so in the end it may come down to who can offer the most in the way of "facilities".

All of which puts into context today's game, which will be matched in unreality by the new-style short league starting on Friday night and finishing in January. There will be three divisions, with no relegation and just one promotion place - from the first division to the Premier League - which the Rugby League was forced to concede by Keighley, who sued for their right to contest a Super League place.

In October, the players break for a month for the Halifax Centenary World Cup, sponsored by the building society, which has put a fair amount into it and is less than pleased with the muted build-up in the wake of the Murdoch deal. Also, the Australian World Cup squad will exclude any player who has signed with Murdoch's Super League down under, although since they beat New Zealand 3-0 under that handicap, they will still start as favourites.

It will be after the Centenary Season finishes, though, that the real business will start, and it will be as much about Murdoch v Packer, who has signed up the Australian Rugby League, as Leeds v Wigan.

As the writer and Featherstone Rovers fan Ian Clayton says: "This season was going to be such a party but it is spoiled before it has even begun. If someone throws up into your slippers at the end of the evening, that is bad enough, but when they do it at the start it does tend to cast a shadow over everything that follows."