Tait sceptical as final spectacle crosses border

Scot anticipates only local indifference to rugby league's Challenge Cup climax
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The Independent Online

Alan Tait has some advice for his old game as it takes its showpiece north to Scotland for the first time. Enjoy the fling, but don't expect it to turn into a lasting affair.

Tait has been a local hero on both sides of the border - a Scottish rugby union international who went on to play league for Widnes, Leeds and Great Britain, before re-crossing the frontier for a spectacular swansong with the British Lions in South Africa.

This weekend his two worlds come together as the Challenge Cup final between Leeds and Bradford is staged at Murrayfield. As a man with a set of studs in each camp, Tait casts an appreciative but cautious eye over the event. "I still love rugby league," he says. "I loved playing the game and I would never swap that experience for anything in the world."

But he warns his old code not to expect too much from the experience. "It will be a great weekend, but the city and the stadium will be full of people from Leeds and Bradford, not Scots. They'll go about their daily chores and not really know what's hit them.

"Rugby union struggles to draw any sort of crowd here at club level, so it's no use expecting them to suddenly watch rugby league. They talk about a Super League club here, but I don't know if it could ever take off, to be honest."

More than anyone, Tait knows what he is talking about when he compares and contrasts the two games. Unlike most union converts, he arrived in league with a residual knowledge of league, having had the immeasurable advantage of growing up in Cumbria, where his father, Alan Snr, was playing for Workington Town.

He was an unqualified success in Doug Laughton's freewheeling Widnes side, along with other converts of the calibre of Jonathan Davies and Martin Offiah; far less so when Laughton took him to Leeds.

While his mentor was there, Tait was in favour. "But we were victims of knocking our heads against the Wigan wall. People don't realise how good Wigan were in those days, but it cost Dougie his job - always finishing second to them."

Those runners-up spots included losing the 1994 and 1995 finals to Wigan at Wembley, the first of which ensured that many people's abiding image of Alan Tait's rugby league career is of his being twisted like a rope by his old team-mate, Offiah, for one of the stadium's most memorable tries.

His real problems began, though, when Dean Bell and Hugh McGahan took over at Leeds and quickly made it clear that he was not part of their plans. In retrospect, Tait is not particularly proud of what that did to his attitude.

"I was playing in the reserves and I cracked on I was injured just to get away. I was really as fit as the next man. It was pretty unprofessional, but that can happen to you when you know you're not wanted."

Rob Andrew threw him a lifeline from Newcastle and, much to the ironic delight of league folk everywhere, a Leeds reserve was a British Lion within a year of departure. Yes, it said something about the different demands of the two codes, but it also said a lot about Tait recovering his appetite for rugby in general.

"Most of all, I was glad to be able to make it up to Ian McGeechan. He'd been Scotland coach when I went to Widnes and I knew how disappointed he'd been."

Now it is all over for Tait, a back injury from a tackle in the World Cup match against Uruguay last year giving him quite enough discomfort when he stands for any length of time, never mind runs around.

That stymies any thoughts of a league comeback for Scotland in his other code's World Cup this autumn, but he retains his strong links with the game - even if one of the strongest puts him on the opposite side from his old club on Saturday.

"I'd love to see Jimmy Lowes lift the Cup for Bradford," he says. "We were good mates at Leeds and we've stayed in touch. I can't think of a more deserving case - even though it makes me a traitor."

Like any student of form - even from a distance - Tait regards Lowes' Bradford as logical favourites at Murrayfield on Saturday. But he has a word of warning for them.

"It's a stadium for the underdog," he says. "Scotland have proved that often enough and Bradford are going to have all the pressure on them - just like England did a few weeks ago."