Friendships on hold in clash of the Kiwis

Two world-class half-backs from New Zealand will be renewing old rivalries in the World Club Championship tonight. Dave Hadfield outlines the similar paths Auckland's Stacey Jones (left) and Bradford's Robbie Paul (right) have taken
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The Independent Online
Near-contemporaries and near-neighbours who rank among the best half-backs in the world will stage a reunion at Odsal this evening.

Bradford's Robbie Paul and Auckland's Stacey Jones were born within a couple of months of each other 21 years ago and played with and against each other during their formative years in New Zealand. "I knew him all the way through our school days and we've played in teams together since we were nippers," says Jones, whose virtuoso performance for the Warriors at St Helens last week had many in England hailing him as the best scrum- half in the world.

Frank Endacott, coach of both Auckland and New Zealand, and previously the Junior Kiwis, knows the duo well. "I had the pleasure of watching them both right through the Auckland representative teams, and they were always two very talented young players. But Stacey was always the scrum- half; he was always that little bit ahead."

Endacott believes Jones is still ahead of the game now that he is playing against the best senior half-backs on a regular basis. "Stacey is as good as any scrum-half in the world at the moment," he says. "He has marked Allan Langer and Ricky Stuart recently and lost nothing by comparison with either of them.

"There are likenesses between him and Robbie, but Stacey has the greater speed while Robbie is a bit more unorthodox."

That is Paul's strength but, to some eyes, also his weakness. He goes his own inimitable way on the field while Jones is the more structured, team-orientated player. "He can play more or less anywhere," Jones says of his Bradford counterpart. "He's going to go on to bigger things - but I suppose I don't want that to be as scrum-half."

Endacott has already united the two at full international level, bringing on Paul as a substitute to play stand-off outside Jones in the recent Test against Australia in Sydney. "He went very well; he made a difference," Endacott says. "I think he could play scrum-half or stand-off for New Zealand, but he also has all the attributes of a world-class hooker.

"I was also very impressed by the way he fitted in with the side. He's a very confident person for his age and, like his brother Henry, he's got plenty to say for himself. I reckon the pair of them could talk under water."

The Bradford fans' conviction that Paul can walk on water took a slight denting last Monday in the Kiwi's first game since recovering from the foot injury that ruined his Wembley. "He looked a bit rusty against Penrith," Endacott says. "He wasn't at his best, but fully fit he is a handful for anyone."

Paul has been having physiotherapy on the foot in a bid to be fully functional against his fellow countrymen. "He is one of the danger men as far as we are concerned, but we will put pressure on him from the start, as we did on Bobbie Goulding," Endacott says.

That win over Goulding's Saints has given Auckland a confidence that eluded them throughout a six-match losing streak before they came to Britain. "I know people were surprised by the way we played at Saints after a record like that," Jones says. "But it wasn't as though we were playing badly. All our games were like the Bradford-Penrith game, with us playing the role of Bradford - doing everything right and then just losing at the end.

"It was tough for Robbie, because he's the captain of Bradford and he probably has a lot more responsibility than me. I just go out and try to do my job to the best of my ability."

Any criticism of Jones has been the precise opposite of that occasionally levelled at Paul - that his ability has been submerged by the need to play within a system. "But we've changed the way we've played over the last few weeks," says Endacott of the looser and freer style they have adopted since he took over from John Monie as the Warriors' coach.

Given the licence to roam, Jones has added a little of Paul's unpredictability to his game. It makes him an even more complete player than when the two used to team up together as schoolboys, and Bradford know that the player they snatched from under the Warriors' noses must outshine him if their side is to win this evening.

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