Australian U-turn averts 'catastrophe'

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The Independent Online

The Kangaroos – including their captain, Brad Fittler – are to tour Britain for a three-Test series next month after all. In a remarkable U-turn, the Australian Rugby League yesterday reversed its decision to cancel the tour – a decision that brought it heavy criticism on both sides of the world.

"They came under a lot of pressure, but I think they would have been strong enough to withstand that," said the Wigan chairman, Maurice Lindsay, who led the effort to persuade them to change their mind. "I think they have done this for the sake of rugby league.

"Had there been no tour it would have been catastrophic. An inability to have a tour when other teams were visiting this country would have been a massive indictment of our sport and I don't think we would have recovered very well."

The ARL board changed its view after being reassured about security by the British High Commissioner, Alistair Goodlad – "and he is a good lad," said Lindsay – and by the Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn.

The players, 12 of whom voted against touring last week, were also convinced, even Fittler, who had been vocal in his opposition to the tour, but who was prevailed upon to change his mind by a series of the code's heavyweights.

"I know that Brad has always been desperately keen to make this trip, but he has had to make a really, really tough call, because of concerns about his family and their position," said the Australian team manager, Geoff Carr.

The only player from the 24 originally selected who is now unlikely to come is the Brisbane prop, Shane Webcke, and the Great Britain coach, David Waite, expressed his delight that the Australians will be virtually at full strength. "It means that there are no excuses, because it's the best playing the best," he said. "That's what the supporters want to see."

They will get their chance at Huddersfield on 11 November for the first Test, with the next two being staged as planned on 17 November at Bolton and 24 November at Wigan. The original programme of club games, against the big four of Bradford, Wigan, St Helens and Leeds has been scrapped. There is, however, a chance that the Australians will request a warm-up match after arriving on 5 November, or a game against a representative side – probably Yorkshire – between the first and second Tests.

Those are details of minor importance alongside the fact that the tour is back on. "Assuming the situation is reasonable, it's an absolute cast-iron guarantee," said Lindsay, who worked with the RFL's director of rugby, Greg McCallum, on the successful salvage operation.

There is even a theory now that the cancellation and the attendant publicity could benefit the Test series – what might be called the "Murrayfield effect," after the Challenge Cup final last year was nearly submerged when the adjoining river broke its banks.

"A flood was a lot easier to deal with than what we've dealt with over the last week," said McCallum.

Waite will now name his 24-man squad, for the warm-up game in France next week and the Ashes series, tomorrow. "I don't think this will affect Australia's preparation at all," he said. "But it will add something to the Test series. I'm not surprised that Fittler is coming; his leadership has always been pretty sound."

Asked whether his players might make capital out of Australia's original misgivings when they meet them on the pitch, Waite insisted: "Absolutely not." Unusually for him, though, he was laughing.