Paul more than a pretty face

Dave Hadfield on a Kiwi who holds the key to Sunday's World Cup semi-final
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Henry Paul will be spared the final - or in this case, semi- final - indignity on Sunday. This most gifted and graceful of players will not have to stick his head into the land of cauliflower ears and broken noses that was once the domain of the specialist hooker.

Paul will play against Australia at Huddersfield for the right to go into the final of the Halifax Centenary World Cup, and he will have a No 9 on his back. But he will bind into the scrum at loose-forward rather than the middle of the front row. "He's too good looking for that," says the Kiwi coach, Frank Endacott.

Endacott has given Paul such a variety of often peripheral roles during his short career as an international player that it would be no great surprise to find that he had given him the responsibility for cutting up the half-time oranges and running the bath.

The bath could hardly be more lukewarm than the coach's initial assessment of Paul's value during the World Cup. "He can win you a match, but he can lose you a match as well," was the way he put it when explaining why the Wigan player was hardly central to his plans.

Wigan supporters will search their memories in vain for the matches he has lost for them, but Paul came off the bench to play a big part in winning one when New Zealand staged their great escape to beat Tonga 25-24 in their first group game.

He was consequently back in favour, winning the stand-off role ahead of his rival, Gene Ngamu, for the match against Papua New Guinea. Once more he failed to enlist his coach in his fan club, with Endacott hinting that Ngamu would be restored for this weekend's semi-final.

In the event, and typically of Kiwi selection for the best part of a decade, he has come up with a completely different set of options, with Tony Kemp moving to stand-off, Mark Horo hooking in the scrums and Paul in the hooker's other, infinitely more important role as dummy half.

There is a classic New Zealand inconsistency at work here. Endacott fears that Paul, for all his talent, is likely to take the wrong option and try to do a little too much when he gets the ball in his hands. Therefore, he plays him in the role where he will handle the ball more than anyone.

The coach who knows him best is Wigan's Graeme West. One thing his club coach has never seriously considered is playing him at hooker. But, significantly, he has switched him into the pack occasionally during games.

"If we're short of ideas, moving Henry to loose-forward has got us going again," he says. "Putting him into a new role against Australia in a World Cup semi-final, though, that probably isn't the ideal situation."

If New Zealand do finally discover the missing formula, the 21-year-old with an unfamiliar number on his back will be the alchemist. And, as he says: "Number nine? It's only a six upside down."