Revolution threatens old guard

SUPER LEAGUE: pounds 87m new age of rugby league promises changes on the field as well as off it. Dave Hadfield looks ahead
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The posturing and politicking, mercifully and probably only temporarily, is over. The playing of Super League begins this weekend. Almost a year to the day from the historic decision to restructure the game in return for an eventual pounds 87m from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, we will start to see whether it works.

Some of the changes that the revolution has ushered in were overdue. Clubs have long needed to operate more professionally and players should have had their workload reduced to one match per week years ago.

On other innovations, such as the switch to a summer season, the jury is not only still out, but deeply split. Too many clubs see it as an automatic answer to all the problems they have allowed to accumulate, so their enthusiasm must, in many cases, be taken with a large pinch of condiment.

More convincing is the fact that most players are all for it. All right, many of them have been handsomely paid to make the right noises, but there is a genuine feeling of anticipation, of looking forward to playing once a week, in decent conditions. They are, after all, the ones who will have to make it work.

That means that the standard of the competition, especially in the 12- team top division that carries the Super League logo, will be scrutinised as never before.

It is all very well to bang the drum about how great it is going to be. It is the players - largely the same ones that the public would not turn out to watch in sufficient numbers in the winter - who must deliver. Setting aside all qualms about the methods and motivations behind it all, it is possible for these men at the cutting edge to make it all make sense.

It could even be argued that Super League has been fortunate in its timing. The most dominant side the code has seen, the Wigan team that has almost monopolised domestic honours for almost a decade, is showing signs of strain. It has always been something of a myth that everything at Wigan was so slick and professional. They certainly have been on the pitch; not always off it.

They have potentially ruinous problems in their financial and administrative affairs and are not looking too impressive in playing terms either. They were so poor in a friendly at Salford - their conquerors in the Challenge Cup two months ago - last weekend that their coach, Graeme West, has had to warn that heads, and senior heads at that, will roll. Very unWigan.

So the opportunity is there for another club to, at the very least, mount a serious challenge. The two teams best equipped to do that are the two Wembley finalists, St Helens and the Bradford Bulls, not just because they have shown their mettle on the way to the Challenge Cup final, but because both clubs are in the process of changing their culture.

At Bradford, that has meant getting rid of the over-reliance on "old heads". At Saints, it means losing the old conviction that flair on its own is enough, even though the evidence of the past 20 years is that it is not.

Brian Smith, at the Bulls, and Saints' Shaun McRae are making rapid progress, but the success they have achieved this season could get in the way. It will be fascinating to see how both sides cope with having their first five Super League matches before Wembley.

This is new territory. Under the old structure, sides' league fortunes were already largely determined by Cup final time, and there was an inevitable tendency for minds to wander. Now they are going to have to develop split personalities, concentrating on their main business in Super League while also preparing for 27 April.

For a dark horse, look no further than Sheffield Eagles. During an inspired run in the second half of the last winter season, they beat every other team apart from Wigan. They now have a depth in their squad that enables them to leave out fully fit players who would have been automatic choices on one leg not too long ago.

A real fight at the top of the table involving these clubs and possibly others - Leeds, if they can sort themselves out, perhaps - will do more to sell Super League to the broader public it must attract than any amount of packaging. That is not to say that the packaging is not important. Clubs are promising a full afternoon, or evening, of entertainment, and if they make a mess of it there will be no shortage of critics to mock the hopelessness of it all.

On the field, the packaging must not be allowed to obscure the qualities that the product already has. In the rush to speed and hype it up for a new audience, the game must not lose sight of the virtues that make it worthwhile in the first place.

There is a danger, in the direction that new rules and new presentation techniques are taking it, of reducing rugby league to fast food, when what people really want is substantial fare.

FOUR TALENTS TO LIGHT UP THE SUMMER GAME

TOA KOHE-LOVE

Warrington

Alex Murphy suffers from a congenital inability to remember his name, but many other people could be familiar with it by the end of the season. An elusive and imaginative centre, comparisons with Wigan's Henry Paul are flattering at the moment, but may not seem so far-fetched when this 20-year-old New Zealander finds his feet.

DANNY ARNOLD

St Helens

Competition for places in Saints' back line is fierce, but Arnold cannot be held back for long. He can play anywhere in the backs and, blessed as he is with speed, unlimited self-confidence and - unlike some of his contemporaries - physical size, a regular place will have to be found for him soon.

ADRIAN MORLEY

Leeds

Only 18, but already a powerful figure in the pack. Tackles with thunderous force and looks exactly the sort of forward who will thrive in summer rugby. Leeds have shown how much they think of him by signing him up to a new four-year contract and declaring that they intend to build their pack around him.

FERETI TUILAGI

Halifax

The Western Samoan three-quarter was an unknown name here when he arrived in the middle of last winter, but is the sort of player who should flourish on firm, fast grounds. An explosive runner, with power, pace and an eye for a gap, Tuilagi has the ability to be as exciting as any back in the Super League.

TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE

BRADFORD BULLS

Completely reassembled and intelligently coached, Bradford can even be expected to improve on their remarkable Challenge Cup semi-final form as the season goes on. Should be slick and well-organised in the centre of the field with the addition of James Lowes and Glen Tomlinson.

Prediction: 3rd

CASTLEFORD

Generally lacklustre during the last winter season, and it is hard to see them doing much better this time. The loss of Tawera Nikau is a heavy blow and much will depend on whether Frano Botica can make a successful comeback after his broken leg. Castleford need both his goal-kicking and his all-round ability.

Prediction: 8th

HALIFAX

Their important South Pacific complement should thrive in warmer conditions and Steve Simms has young British forwards of real potential in Paul Rowley and Paul Anderson. Capable of beating the best, although Thrum Hall will not be so daunting to visit in the summer.

Prediction: 6th

LEEDS

The Hugh McGahan-Dean Bell regime should be starting to make Headingley more of a place of work than a gentlemen's club. They have good young players on their way through, but obvious weaknesses in key positions will hold Leeds back until they are addressed.

Prediction: 5th

LONDON BRONCOS

Flattered to deceive last season and do not have an appreciably stronger squad now. Much will depend on what the new coach, Tony Currie, can add. The signs are that their defence will be more reliable, but they need to win and to entertain if they are to attract enough spectators to give The Valley an atmosphere.

Prediction: 10th

OLDHAM

Performed better than expected under a thorough and ambitious coach in Andy Goodway last season, but often a little lacking in class when faced with the better sides. The contribution of two new Australians, Matt Munro and Andrew Patmore, will be important.

Prediction: 9th

PARIS ST-GERMAIN

It is vital for the success of Super League that Paris should be competitive. They have the cream of French talent, but may need to widen their net further if they are to thrive. Lack of familiarity with travelling to France could bring them points against the less well-prepared sides, however.

Prediction: 11th

ST HELENS

Their traditional flair, allied with the Australian methods of Shaun McRae, could just make this the breakthrough season for Saints. A brilliant back line, underrated forwards and the best crop of up-and-coming talent in the country all point to it being their year.

Prediction: Champions

SHEFFIELD EAGLES

Showed their ability with a wonderful winning run in the second half of last season and now look to have the depth in their squad to make a bid for a top-four place. That is their declared aim and the Eagles have a habit of setting themselves realistic targets and attaining them.

Prediction: 4th

WARRINGTON

How the Dorahy-Murphy axis will work in the long run is anybody's guess, but Warrington have some brilliant young players and a couple of exciting newcomers. Still need the right additions of senior players to pull the whole thing together and are watching developments in Australia as keenly as anyone.

Prediction: 7th

WIGAN

At long last, the regular rumours that the empire is on the slide seem to have some substance. Still more outstanding players than anyone else and obviously the side to beat, but a lack of their usual depth and troubles off the pitch could just throw them off their stride sufficiently to give the others a chance.

Prediction: 2nd

WORKINGTON TOWN

New coach Ross O'Reilly, although well regarded in Australia, has what looks like an impossible task. Broke, isolated, short of players of sufficient ability - if you wanted to be cynical, you could say that Town will perform a valuable service for Super League by preventing London or Paris being cast into oblivion at the end of the first season.

Prediction: 12th

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