Game in grip of trench fever

Lindsay still upbeat about the Super League as uncertainty Down Under casts a shadow over play-offs
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The Independent Online
IT WAS wholly appropriate that the launch of the European Super League should be accompanied by images of battlefield mayhem. That was the advert with which Sky will crank up interest over the next four weeks, and many found its visions of trench warfare literally over the top.

Super League in the northern hemisphere is actually rather harmonious. We are all in it together, even if, like that other European Community, we are travelling at different speeds and with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

As a description of events in Australia, however, the advert was a little lacking in blood, gore and guts; slightly too quiet on the western front. That country's most respected publication on the game, Rugby League Week, devoted its front page last week to a photograph of a nuclear explosion, that being their closest approximation to the cataclysm that has shaken the game there.

Over the top? Not if the fall-out affects us here in the way that it might. Despite the insistence on Thursday that it is business as usual in Britain, the court verdict in Sydney two days earlier - that Super League could not start in the southern hemisphere - threatens to knock the whole thing out of kilter.

From a British point of view, the question is what happens to the international dimension of Super League, a highly attractive element in the package that was due to include play-offs for the top four clubs on both sides of the world, followed by a Great Britain tour, playing largelyagainst Super League opposition in Australia. Take that away, leave Europe playing in isolation, and the whole thing does not look half as seductive.

In the great rugby league tradition, the first and most urgent concerns involve balancing the books. The St Helens chairman, Eric Ashton, admits candidly that his club has budgeted for the possibility of a play-off pay-day. Without that prospect, it would have been difficult for them to justify their outlay, particularly the world record transfer fee for Paul Newlove.

Alf Davies, the chief executive at Leeds, does not go quite that far. "We haven't budgeted for it," he said. "We regard it as the icing on the cake, but it's very important icing. We've already got a mighty battle ahead of us over the next two or three years."

Leeds, Saints and most other Super League clubs were already complaining of a financial squeeze before Mr Justice Burchett threw the climax of the season into doubt. From that first, heady rush of euphoria, when many believed they were going to get pounds 1m up front, they have seen that lump sum whittled down, first by extra help to First and Second Division clubs and now by a 7.5 per cent levy to the league.

Worse still, the money is drip-fed, with the next transfusion not due until the end of April. Against that, clubs have had the extra expense of retaining their players and filling new administrative positions as required by the league. Several will claim to be more impoverished than they were before Murdoch's millions were ever dangled in front of their noses.

The Super League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, predictably has little truck with that notion, but neither does Gary Hetherington, the coach of Sheffield Eagles and firmly on the Europhile wing when it comes to summer rugby and Super League. "I think clubs use these things as an excuse," he said. "We have got summer rugby, which was inevitable, and we are better off than we have ever been."

Super League in Europe should be self-supporting, with or without the Australian dimension, he believes. "We haven't budgeted for it and I don't believe that any other club should have done so either," he said.

Part of the morale-boosting exercise last Thursday consisted of reassuring players and officials that there will be an international incentive at the end of this first European season - which depends in the first instance on the Australian courts, to which the ARL and Super League return next Wednesday.

Although Murdoch's men down under remain defiant, it is hard to see them salvaging much in the short term. Even then, Lindsay claims to have remained on lunch invitation terms with the ARL's battle-scarred but unbowed chairman, Ken Arthurson. Maybe he has - but there would be humble pie on the menu for someone. Barring a big breakthrough in Australia, Super League in Europe will be unable to deliver one of its most important promises and that can only make the battle for credibility more taxing.

During the filming of that cod First World War advert, one player was injured by a "bomb" blowing up in his face. That is the sort of symbolism Super League finds uncomfortable, but which could be all too apt if the war in the south really is lost.

The sceptic

Eric Ashton

St Helens chairman

It's all very well Maurice Lindsay saying we're raring to go; we need to know what we are going to be doing at the end of the season. If the play-offs aren't going to be there, we will struggle. That's what we've geared ourselves up for and we've spent money in order to get there. We drew upl our contracts on the basis that we were going to get pounds 1.1m per season. Now we are on pounds 875,000 and we might lose the play-offs as well. You can't take that sort of money out of any business and not feel it.

The supremo

Maurice Lindsay

Super League chief executive

Clearly we have to be concerned about events in Australia, but there is no point in us being negative. It makes me smile when I hear clubs say that they have lost the money from the World Club Championship. They haven't lost anything; it is money that they never had before. To say that we switched to summer to make the play-offs possible is wrong - we would have switched to summer in any case. I am still confident that we will have a programme of play-offs in six months' time.

The pragmatist

Gary Hetherington

Sheffield Eagles chairman

I don't think the play-offs are absolutely essential. It will be nice if they happen, but it's not a disaster if they don't. The whole concept of Super League was hatched here without the play-offs. They are a good idea and a great end-of- season event, but they are not critical. It wasn't the play-offs we voted for; it was the pounds 87m. There will be enough other attractions and the important thing is to promote the start of the season and not worry too much at this stage about the end.

The optimist

Neil Harmon

Leeds captain

The play-offs are of major significance for the players. They are what we all going to be striving towards. We have been guaranteed that they will take place. Something will be sorted out. There has been too much money put into it to let it die. It's going to be a massive money-spinner both here and in Australia, so it definitely will go ahead.

In the past, players might have dismissed the World Club Championship as something that was just there for Wigan. Now we all have the incentive.

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