St Helens stuck in Grand Final row

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The Independent Online

St Helens and the Rugby League are still on a collision course over the club's insistence that their Grand Final players cannot fly out with their national squads on the morning after the match.

St Helens and the Rugby League are still on a collision course over the club's insistence that their Grand Final players cannot fly out with their national squads on the morning after the match.

Saints say that Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe, of England, plus the Welsh players involved at Old Trafford on Saturday, Keiron Cunningham and Anthony Sullivan, must be at a celebration day at Knowsley Road on Sunday, rather than on their way to Florida, where England play the United States, or Pretoria, where Wales face South Africa.

Their coach, Ian Millward, insists the issue will not be a distraction during the week leading up to the game against Wigan, but the club has dug its heels in and appears to have the support of the players involved.

"It was something we decided after last year, when we didn't have a chance to thank the fans after the Grand Final," said Long, a key member of England's World Cup squad. "I don't think going out a day later would do any harm."

Cunningham, equally important to Wales' prospects, appealed to the game's administrators to sort out the impasse. He said that the Wales coach, Clive Griffiths, was happy for him and Sullivan to join the squad later.

There was no sign, however, of a compromise from the League yesterday. The RFL's spokesman, John Huxley, said: "These arrangements were made months ago and no objections were raised then. Our attitude is that, once the Grand Final is over, the players have obligations to international rugby league and we hope and expect that they will fulfil them."

In theory, players who do not make the trip with their countries could be excluded from the World Cup, but the League is refusing to consider such a drastic measure.

In contrast with Saints' stance, the Wigan coach, Frank Endacott, who is also in charge of New Zealand in the tournament, has no problems with making his players available as soon as the Grand Final ends. "International football is of the utmost importance to rugby league. It is the only advantage rugby union has over us, so we have no worries about making our players available," he said.

One thing the two coaches have in common, however, is an injury worry over a star centre. Endacott does not expect Gary Connolly to recover from ankle ligament damage - "Although miracles do happen," he said - while Millward is more optimistic over Paul Newlove's knee.

The Wigan forwards Terry O'Connor and Terry Newton are both clear to play in the Grand Final, after being told that they have no case to answer over incidents in the victory over Bradford in the final eliminator.

Russell Smith, who refereed that match, has also been put in charge of the Grand Final, which is in line for a record attendance, with 50,000 of the 60,000 tickets already sold.

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