Hull look for fire without damnation

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The Independent Online

Whichever way you look at it, this is a big weekend for rugby league in Hull. After the strength of the game at amateur level in the city was underlined by yesterday's Barla National Cup final between two Humberside teams, the Boulevard today sees the first meeting between Hull and Leeds since the crowd disturbances that disfigured their Challenge Cup semi-final.

Shane Richardson, the club's chief executive, will have been far more relaxed at the first occasion than the second, when his match-day nerves will be amplified by the inevitable resonance of events of seven weeks ago when a sizeable minority of the club's fans ran riot. "Every match we've had since has been a test," says Richardson. "I would have been more concerned if we'd played Leeds the week after. Now, between us and the fans, we've got a lot of things in place."

Those changes revolve around creating a more welcoming culture at the Boulevard, without losing the vibrant atmosphere that makes it what it is. "I'd never want to lose the buzz at this ground," Richardson says. "To me, it typifies what rugby league in England is all about. We want it to be a cauldron, but a cauldron you can go into and out of safely."

That fine balancing act will be put to the test by the visit of Leeds, who stirred dark passions on Humberside long before the events in Huddersfield. "I'm not so naïve as to think that no one will swear on a rugby ground," Richardson says. But he hopes that the damper that he and the fans' organisations have put on the more obscene and intimidating chanting will hold good today.

"We don't want to lose the great rivalry between Hull and Leeds, but we've tried to eradicate the foul language." That should, in theory, silence the Threepenny Stand's favourite ditty about Iestyn Harris, but whether that self-denying ordinance will hold good if he is tying them in knots in the second half is another matter.

Richardson looks at Harris and Andy Farrell, who destroyed them on Wigan's behalf last Sunday, and sees all too clearly what Hull are lacking. "They are great players, what you could call franchise players, and we don't have the money to go out and buy them. We have to create our own."

If that sounds a tall order, Richardson can point to an enviable back-yard full of talent - and not just at yesterday's open-age level. His own son plays in the local Under-11s competition and Richardson says that, at that age and older, the standard is just as high as in his native Australia. "It's a question of what happens to them after that."

In young local players like Richard Horne, Hull are already tapping into their rich hinterland. They will have to do so to a much greater extent next season, when their current, generous overseas quota shrinks to the standard five.

Only one Australian - Steve Collins - is already signed for next season. Two more, Ian Herron and Adam Maher, qualify through British or Irish passports; two others, Andrew Hick and Craig Wilson, are to retire. "The rest are playing for contracts," says Richardson. They, like the more rough and ready element among their fans, are on trial today and for the rest of the season.

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