Larder gets back to real life

Dave Hadfield looks at the hard times suffered by Keighley Cougars
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THE town of Keighley has been given new life in recent years by the coming of the Cougars, with their blend of rootsiness and razzmatazz. But the glow of optimism radiated by the World Cup was almost tarnished last week when the club was on the verge of going out of business.

Although the immediate danger has receded with the paying off of a former director who was owed money, the Cougars are not out of the woods. Their problems are not unique, and are indicative of the structural weaknesses that still gnaw at the game's foundations, despite the triumphant last three weeks.

The club had become the centre of a thriving operation, with Cougar country and western nights, a Cougar opera and "Cougarcopters" to fly fans to away games. The town was thoroughly Cougarised. And this month there has been a vicarious taste of the high life, via their coach, Phil Larder, and two members of his England World Cup squad.

But for Keighley, as for many clubs, the numbers do not add up. When they were on their way to what would have been promotion to the First Division - had the Super League not intervened - they made the decision to go professional full-time and to sign players of the calibre of Daryl Powell, one of Larder's England men.

Despite their energetic lobbying, the Cougars finished up without a place in either the old First Division or the Super League, but they pay Super League wages. The increase in their average gate from 400 eight years ago to almost 4,000 last season is remarkable, but is not enough to pay the bills.

The Rugby League, which has no reason to love them after the public clashes over the Super League, insists it will do everything it can to keep the game alive in Keighley, but that could mean several things.

It could mean the Cougars hanging on until they get the rest of their Super League pay-off, pulling through and remaining one of the best of the teams eventually pushing for inclusion in the Super League.

It could involve them going under and reappearing, as Doncaster have done this season, at the bottom of the heap. Or they could keep going, as struggling clubs have done for the last 100 years, by selling off their prized assets, like Powell and the England centre Nick Pinkney.

Going back to the small-time would be painful but it could happen, and it would not be prevented by the gesture planned for Wednesday, when hard-line Cougarites intend to pay pounds 7 to stand on their home terraces and listen to the match at Batley on the radio, rather than put money into alien coffers.

Only the Cougars could come up with that one, but it has to be said that if every club in the game had attracted as many new fans over the past five years, domestic rugby league would not have needed a lifeline - from the Super League or anywhere else.

Ten to remember: Highlights of the World Cup

Best match: New Zealand 25 Tonga 24. As uninhibited as it was uncompromising. Arguably the best international ever played

Luckiest winners: New Zealand, courtesy of Matthew Ridge's injury- time drop goal, against Tonga

Unluckiest losers: New Zealand, when Ridge missed with an injury- time drop goal, against Australia

Toughest match: Wales v Western Samoa. Blood and guts from start to finish

Best try: Terry Wallace of the United States, who finished a length- of-the-field move against Russia

Best national anthem: The Cook Islands, sung by themselves in harmony

Best war-dance: Tonga. I don't know what they do to the enemy, but, by God . . .

Best substitutes' warm-up: Russia, involving forward rolls, head- to-head wrestling and high jumps

Most misplaced fear: That it would show up badly by comparison with the Rugby Union World Cup

Biggest myth exploded: Fans will not turn out to watch matches involving far-away countries and players with strange names