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Morley making way for the main course

The year 1997 has much to do to top 1996 for Adrian Morley, but such is the potential of the Leeds second-row forward that it could prove the main course following the appetizer.

A year ago, Morley was an 18-year-old the limit of whose ambitions was to establish himself in the Leeds first team. Not only did he do that - emerging as just about Leeds' only consistent performer during a miserable first Super League season - but he also toured with Great Britain in the autumn, when his form was one of the few bright spots on that ill-starred trip.

"All I started off wanting to do was to cement my place in the Leeds first team," he says. "The next thing I was in there and people were telling me that I was playing well.

"I got into the England team and I couldn't believe that - and then I found myself on the tour. People had told me that I'd got a chance, but I didn't think I was playing that well."

But Morley made that tour party on merit and should show the benefit of the experience during the second Super League season. "Playing with all those top-class players, you're going to learn a lot from them. I believe I've come back a much better player."

Morley was particularly grateful for the support and encouragement of the tour party's most experienced international - Denis Betts, like him a second-rower and a Salford lad. "That meant a lot to me, with Denis being from the same area and playing the same position. He was a tremendous help to me on tour."

As a Salfordian, Morley might have been expected to gravitate to a Lancashire club, like his brother, Chris, who plays in St Helens' pack. He was not short of offers, but Leeds, and the silver tongue of their then manager, Doug Laughton, lured him over the Pennines to Headingley.

"Doug came to our house and he's a very persuasive man. But it was when I went to the ground and saw the facilities that I knew that was where I wanted to be."

What Morley could not have known two and a half years ago was that Leeds were about to lose the unwanted tag of bridesmaids - but only because wedding invitations were about to dry up completely. Last season, the first of Super League and his first as an established first-teamer, saw them win only six games and finish above only Workington Town and Paris St-Germain.

One man who could not be blamed for that was Morley who, in an inversion of the normal logic, often seemed to be carrying more experienced forwards who were under-performing. He believes it will be very different this time. There is a new regime at Leeds, under the new chief executive, Gary Hetherington, and, he says, a new atmosphere at pre-season training.

"There have been some major new signings and a player like Richie Blackmore is going to be a big boost for us. There is just a new feeling at training; a lot more confidence around the place than there was last year. And that crowd of 14,000 for the friendly against Halifax on Boxing Day shows how much potential there is at the place."

If 1997 can easily be infinitely better than its predecessor for the club, there is only one thing about his own performances in 1996 that Morley would change. His one source of regret is the incident that cost Great Britain the first Test in New Zealand, just minutes after Morley had come on to make his debut.

The young forward was sin-binned - harshly, it seemed at the time - for holding down in the tackle and, in the eight minutes remaining, the Kiwis scored the two tries that gave tham a 17-12 victory. "I still can't bring myself to look at the tape of that match," he says. "It went from being the best day of my life to being one of the worst."

One of Morley's staunchest supporters, the Great Britain manager, Phil Lowe, believes that the misadventure exposed the one real flaw in the player's current capabilities. It might have something to do with carrying so much responsibility at Leeds, but Morley is guilty at times of over- enthusiasm.

One of the many things he will have learned on tour is to temper that tendency. Once he absorbs that lesson and displays the cool head to go with his speed, strength and remarkable agility, Leeds and Great Britain will have a world-class second-rower at their disposal for a decade or more.