Saints provide the local heroes

Dave Hadfield finds two reasons for home hope in the World Cup
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The Independent Online

There has been some encouragement for the homenations this week, at a time when a general hopelessness about the Lincoln World Cup was threatening to take hold.

There has been some encouragement for the homenations this week, at a time when a general hopelessness about the Lincoln World Cup was threatening to take hold.

The tournament, which begins with England facing Australia at Twickenham on 28 October, has been roundly condemned as a formality, with the splitting of Great Britain's comparatively meagre resources into four teams killing off any chance the home representatives might have had of stopping the mighty juggernaut that is Australian rugby league.

But, in one small North-west town, there are - on the evidence of last weekend's play-offs - at least two players with the world-class credentials to defy this pessimistic analysis. As St Helens demolished Wigan, both Sean Long and Keiron Cunningham looked the sort of players who, given the right sort of support, could surprise the pre-tournament favourites from the southern hemisphere.

Long had suffered a shocker last time out against Wigan a fortnight previously, so to come back with such a dominant display showed strength of character as well as natural talent. "I sat down and looked at what I'd done wrong in that game and I just knew that I had to lift my game," he said.

With his bubbling personality and his appearances in glossy magazines, he has the potential to be the face of the World Cup; his application to getting it right on the pitch means that he could be one of its most influential players as well. The England coach, John Kear, has had Long as one of a handful of players inked into his team to face Australia on the opening day since the draw was first made.

Cunningham is equally central to Welsh plans, which consist initially of qualifying from the group stages along with New Zealand. Qualifying for the Principality through his mother, he is, along with Iestyn Harris and the Irish captain, Terry O'Connor, one of the few non-Englishmen who would walk into a combined Great Britain side, if such a thing existed this year.

Cunningham is big and heavy for a hooker and there have been times in his career when it was possible to prefer some lighter, more obviously mobile candidates for what is, after all, a second half-back in today's game.

Since recovering from a nagging back injury, however, he has looked the ideal combination of power and pace. The support play of Wigan's Terry Newton - who is missing England's World Cup campaign in order to have a knee operation - might be superior, but Cunningham is more formidable from dummy half than any hooker in the world.

While those two provide home hope, so too did Australia's preparations for their warm-up international against Papua New Guinea this weekend.

Quite apart from Wendell Sailor spending the night in the cells after what was described, in that famous rugby league phrase, as "an incident in a nightclub", there were some signs of confusion in Australia's selection.

Despite previously insisting that Andrew Johns was his first-choice scrum-half, the Australian coach, Chris Anderson, picked him at hooker against PNG; for all the overlap between the two roles, that is a waste of his special gifts.

With their season ending weeks ago and the Olympics blacking out the World Cup from the national consciousness, there is the prospect of catching Australia if not cold then slightly lukewarm at Twickenham in three weeks' time - especially if a player of Long's instinctive attacking flair can take them unawares.

It has happened before. The only drawback is that, in order to do the unthinkable and win the World Cup, England will have to do it twice.

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