MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF '96: In the grip of a non-stop show

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The Independent Online
FOR the Wigan coach, Graeme West, 1996 will be an unrepeatable experience - nearly 12 months of relentless rugby league activity that will take him and his team into uncharted waters.

The start of the Super League and summer rugby makes the coming year one of violent transition. It will begin normally enough, with Wigan completing the formality of winning their seventh consecutive championship - although even they are unused to having matters all tied up by early January in this curtailed season.

Then the fun really starts, with clubs combining their attempt to make progress in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup with preparing for the kick-off of the Super League at the end of March.

"We will have the odd week off between games, which will be a boon," West said philosophically. "We will be trying to win every game and, if we make progress in the Cup, there won't be much of a gap. But it's no good bleating about it."

One problem for West and other coaches is that they will not be able to plan their Super League preparation in any detail while still in the Cup. By comparison, the timetable once the Super League starts is straightforward. West has long been an advocate of once-a-week rugby, as well as summer rugby, and he is looking forward to having time to gear up his side for the next match.

The one exception will be during the European Championship in June, when, on recent form, a dozen Wigan players will be playing for England and Wales in midweek and for their club at the weekend. "But it's no good complaining. We know what the situation is and we can start to get ready for it."

West believes that spectators will react enthusiastically to summer rugby, provided it is meaningful. "If you put on competitive matches at any time of year, the people will come. What it needs is for the Super League to be competitive week after week, not by pulling Wigan back, but by other sides catching up with us. A lot of clubs are trying very hard to do that.

"All clubs - including Wigan - have to be thinking already about the higher standard that is going to be required when our top four meet the Australian top four at the end of the season."

A European failure in those play-offs, would, West believes, damage the credibility of the whole enterprise. "It would be a disaster if it was a 4-0 whitewash," he said. "That would embarrass me to hell. So we have to concentrate on standards; getting stronger, fitter and faster and lifting the competitiveness of our game."

That same attention to excellence will be West's theme if Wigan take part in what ranks as the most intriguing fixture of the year, against the leading club in the union code, Bath. "If the suggested games go ahead, we would want to give it our best shot," he said. "With the sort of professionals we have at Wigan, they wouldn't have it any other way."

That would mean bringing in specialist union expertise to help prepare the side for their outing under 15-a-side rules. "If we can get the right atmosphere, the right grounds, the right financial arrangements - then it is another challenge and something we would be keen to do.

"If you just pooh-pooh something like this because it is unfamiliar then you are selling yourself short. Who would have thought we would even be talking about it? Who would have thought we would be doing any of the things that we are doing this next year."

West is even prepared to countenance something that struck him initially as a non-starter and something that really would make 1996 a 12-month treadmill as well as an exciting adventure - playing a double-header against St Helens over the Christmas period to preserve a lucrative tradition.

"If the players wanted to do it and it was financially feasible, it could be a goer," he said. "Of course, it's another challenge - playing games like that during the off-season. But it's a year of challenges."