Powell prowls the danger zone

RUGBY LEAGUE CENTENARY WORLD CUP 1995; England's stand-off has faced harsh critics and the game's toughest opponents - and has overcome both, writes Dave Hadfield
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Not for the first time in his long international career, the vultures are hovering over Daryl Powell at Wembley today.

The Keighley stand-off faces up this afternoon to Australia's key man, Brad Fittler. It is difficult to find many people, outside those responsible for selecting him, who think that he is up to the job.

"It's nothing new," Powell said. "This has been going on ever since I first came on to the international scene. It doesn't worry me. The people who know most about the game have always picked me and that's the thing that matters."

Plenty of others have very different views of his capabilities, the most vociferous of them all, Alex Murphy, losing few opportunities in his various columns over the past couple of weeks to insist that Powell is not an international-class player, despite his total of more than 30 appearances for Great Britain and England.

The normally stoical Powell has even been moved to hit back at the sustained attack from what he calls "an out-of-work TV commentator", but he knows that it is what he does on the pitch at Wembley today which will win the argument one way or the other.

"There's no doubt that it's a big challenge, but I've played my best rugby league when I've faced my biggest challenges."

As he looks for inspiration today, Powell can cast his mind back five years to another afternoon at Wembley, with Australia also the opponents. In the first Test of the series that day, the Aussies fielded a monumental centre combination of Mal Meninga and the even bigger Mark McGaw. Opposing them: Powell and another unsung tradesman, Carl Gibson, conceding about three stones a man.

To most observers, it was a case of Dial M for Murder and Mayhem; a mismatch that could only finish up with M standing for embarrassment.

History shows, however, that Powell and Gibson completely bottled up their opposite numbers, and Great Britain went on to win 19-12.

"Carl and I copped a lot of stick before that match," he says. "But we went out there and did a job."

The world might just be prepared to concede that Powell is a highly competent defensive player, but it is equally significant that he played a crucial role that day in setting up the winning try.

"Obviously defence is an important part of my game, but I think of myself as an attacking player, too."

Anyone who has watched his club career closely would agree with that. As Sheffield Eagles' first signing 11 years ago, he was a dominant influence on the progress of that club for a decade.

His boss there, Gary Hetherington, was certainly never guilty of type- casting him as a midfield blocker, happily handing over responsibility for tactics to a captain he regards as one of the best readers of the game he has seen.

It came as something of a shock, therefore, when Powell was sold to Keighley last season. The Cougars, before the Super League upheaval changed everything, were stocking up on players of proven First Division experience and Powell was the man to whom they turned.

The arrangement has not worked out quite right for either party. Keighley were robbed of their place in the top division and Powell has consequently dropped out of sight as far as many critics are concerned. To complicate matters further, he needed operations on both Achilles tendons over the summer and has played only three matches since making his comeback.

"I'm feeling OK. A few aches and pains - but there aren't many rugby league players who don't have those. And obviously, like any player, I'd like to be playing at the top level," he says.

It is, on the face of it, a demanding business to be playing against the likes of Batley and Dewsbury one week, and Brad Fittler and Co the next.

Powell, however, is a player who believes in the fundamental virtues - getting your defence right and making life as smooth and comfortable as possible for your team-mates. You win few medals and little extravagant praise for that, but it tends to be appreciated by your colleagues.

Some who overestimate the clout that journalists have in these matters have been known to ask if influence could be brought to bear to "get Daryl into the squad". That is the mark of a player with more about him than is generally realised.

The other hard fact is that there are few real alternatives to Powell in the No 6 shirt today, especially when his opposite number is such an influential figure as Fittler.

They have faced each other directly before, in the Second Test at Brisbane in 1992. Australia won, but not because Powell could not handle Fittler.

"He is clearly their key player," Powell said of his opponent. "He has always been a good player but, now that a lot more responsibility has been put on his shoulders, he has responded to the challenge."

For Powell, the challenge is to prove his detractors wrong. He has done it before and, in his own quietly efficient way, he could do it again.