Orrell prepare for the unthinkable

COMMENTARY

Edge Hall Road, which as a cul-de-sac is quite literally a road to nowhere, is not readily reckoned a pathway to professionalism. But if Orrell have their way, it will be an exit route on a four-mile journey to Wigan and a professional love-in with the greatest rugby league club.

In other words, professionalism, which might have been thought a threat to modest clubs such as Orrell, is instead an opportunity, and after their 38-13 trouncing of Saracens at roughly the same time as Wigan were beating St Helens, the rugby union club can decently presume themselves to be a potential asset to their neighbours.

For Phil Moss, the old England B flanker, who coaches Orrell in conjunction with the England selector Mike Slemen, the move cannot come quickly enough. And if for now the only arrangement is for the Leicester match to take place at Central Park on 30 March, the intention - on Orrell's part, at any rate - is to make this their new home next season.

"A lot of die-hards here will disagree, but my personal view is that the sooner we get down to Central Park the better," he said. "As far as I am concerned, we have to work hand in hand with Wigan rugby league. We are on a professional footing and there are more talented rugby players within 10 square miles than possibly anywhere in the world. We have to tap in to that source."

Orrell may even end up using some of Wigan's players as well as their facilities - which may be heresy to some, including some at Edge Hall Road, but is simply their way of coping with the new dispensation. Saracens, by accepting a pounds 2.5m injection of cash from a property developer and signing the Australian outside-half Michael Lynagh, are employing different means, but to achieve the same end.

Whether Lynagh will be a First or Second Division player hangs in the balance. By losing so heavily in Lancashire in the only rearranged First Division fixture to be spared a further pre-international postponement, Saracens remained only four points ahead of penultimately-placed Gloucester, where they must play the final, fraught match of the season.

Though one can probably discount Gloucester's game in hand, since it is against Bath, their advantage over Saracens in points difference is now up to a substantial 65. Mark Evans, the Sarries' coach, considers 12 points, or another two wins, will suffice to stay up. But the next league games, in Saracens' case at Bristol, are not until 10 February and that makes these anxious times.

Not so for Orrell, who quite apart from the Wigan connection, have now reached Evans' 12-point target and, the middle of the First Division being tightly-packed, could yet qualify for next season's European competition - for which Edge Hall Road, like Sarries' Bramley Road, would be embarrassingly inadequate.

So, one has to say, would their team or, to be more specific, their forwards. It is one of the astonishments of recent times that Orrell, who were runners- up on points difference in the league in 1992 and cup semi finalists in 1991 with a pack of mastadons, are bereft of big ball-winners and so have metamorphosed their game into one of movement and pace to exploit the invariably limited possession that goes their way.

This was more or less how it transpired against Saracens, for whom the impressive England A captain Anthony Diprose dominated the line-out. Orrell, however, made a virtue out of various necessities, not least the enforced selection of reserve props which made no difference to, in fact may have enhanced, their scrummaging.

But with Saracens losing their captain Brian Davies with an ankle ligament injury, the critical comparison was in the loose where they missed their injured flankers, John Green and Richard Hill more than Orrell missed their props in the tight. So much so that Sarries turned over a plethora of ball to Orrell, whose voracious counter-attacking produced some exhilarating rugby once the dismal phoney war of the first half-hour had run its course. The rival hookers, Martin Scott and later Gregg Botterman received yellow cards for unfancy footwork.

Saracens' tries by Peter Harries and Harries' replacement, Kris Chesney, were the merest consolation. For Orrell, Simon Mason's 90-yard interception try on half time and Graeme Smith's second-half hat trick were the outward signs of an entirely laudable inner belief in the virtue of attacking rugby, even if Moss later admitted that his side's high ambition had a tendency to fail - notably in the thrashing by Sale a week earlier, as well as succeed.

The brilliant orchestrator was Austin Healey, a schoolboy scrum-half team-mate of Mason in Birkenhead, who became an adult wing and then reverted to fill the boots of the retired Dewi Morris. Better opponents would not give him such space but he is so swift over five or 10 yards, so sure of himself in taking the gap and so improved in his basic scrum-half functions that he is an England prospect already to savour.

Beyond the spritely Healey, Orrell have a superb opportunist in the teenaged Smith, a passer of the ball in the John Dawes mould in Ian Wynn and a full-back of burgeoning capability in Mason, who contributed 23 points. He has to be the only player to have left Newcastle of late.

This trio are local lads but Mason has opted for Ireland, and land of three of his grandparents, and the other two for Scotland. All may well go all the way for their adopted countries and though Slemen has sought to change Mason's mind before he makes his Ireland A debut this Friday, Orrell have long complained that their best players are pushed down the English pecking order. Healey is a different case: he is English all right, but if Leicester have their way he may not be at Edge Hall Road - or Central Park - for too much longer.

Orrell: Tries Smith 3, Mason; Conversions Mason 3; Penalties Mason 4. Saracens: Tries Harries, Chesney; Penalty Tunningley.

Orrell: S Mason; D Luger, I Wynn, L Tuigamala, G Smith; P Hamer, A Healey; J Russell, M Scott, P Mitchell, C Cusani, C Cooper, J Huxley, P Anglesey, P Manly (capt, S Bibby 52).

Saracens: A Tunningley; M Gregory, J Buckton, S Ravenscroft, P Harries (K Chesney 49); A Lee, B Davies (capt, P Friel, 21); R Andrews, G Botterman, G Holmes, M Langley, C Yandell, D Phillips, A Diprose, A Phillips.

Referee: B Campsall (Halifax)

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