Larder is full of hope for Connolly

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The Independent Online
Rugby League

DAVE HADFIELD

The England coach, Phil Larder, is clinging to a hope that Gary Connolly could be fit for at least part of the Halifax Centenary World Cup.

The Wigan centre or full-back is definitely out of the opening match against Australia at Wembley on Saturday, following a bout of pneumonia.

But Larder, on record as wishing there were two Gary Connolly's to fill both positions, is waiting to see if there are any signs of a startling recovery before writing him off. "We have been told that he will be out for four to six weeks," he said. "But he is a very fit athlete and we are not going to panic by ruling him out."

Any decision on bringing in a replacement is being delayed and, even if there is a newcomer to the squad before Saturday, he will not be considered for the match against the world champions. That points to Wigan's 19-year- old Kris Radlinski being named at full-back when Larder announces his team today, with yet another Wigan player, Barrie-Jon Mather, at centre.

There is still a doubt about Martin Offiah's various leg injuries and he is likely to be included only provisionally.

The Australian coach, Bob Fulton, will not name his side until tomorrow, but all the indications are that the two Tongans controversially included in his squad will be in the starting line-up. John Hopoate of Manly is set to win the three-way tussle for a place on the wing, while Jim Dymock of the new Australian Premiers, the Sydney Bulldogs, could be preferred to Jason Smith, who is short of match practice following an ankle injury, at loose forward.

The selection would go some way towards deflecting criticism that the two were selected in order to spite Tonga, who have taken the Super League's side in the power struggle against the Australian .

Certainly, the mood yesterday at Old Trafford, as representatives of the 10 competing nations assembled for the first time, was one of setting differences aside. "We are disappointed not to have them with us," said the new Tongan captain, Duane Mann, of his missing fellow-countrymen. "But we respect their decision to play for Australia and we wish them well."

There was more harmony from Fulton, expressing his satisfaction with the choice of the Widnes referee, Stuart Cummings, to take charge of the opening contest.

The tournament director, Maurice Lindsay, who revealed that 23,600 tickets have been sold so far for Saturday's match at Wembley, also made an attempt to bury the hatchet - and not in ARL heads. "My views on Australia not selecting Super League players have been widely reported, but it would be wrong to try to denigrate the 25 players who are here," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Super League issue will be left outside this competition. It is the athletes who will now do the talking."

The most compelling talk at the tournament's launch came from the Western Samoan and former Wigan and New Zealand coach, Graham Lowe.

Asked to describe the preparations of a squad which, for all the talent of players such as Va'aiga Tuigamala and John Schuster, has never actually played together, he painted an idyllic picture. "We're going to do it island style," he said. "We'll have a get-together, a few drinks, something to eat, some guitars and a sing-song. A couple of games of touch football and we'll be ready."

That might sound hit-and-miss, but Lowe has demonstrated the talent at his disposal by leaving two highly-regarded British-based players, Sam Panapa of Salford and St Helens' Apollo Perelini, on the bench for Samoa's opening match against France in Cardiff next Thursday.

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