Rugby League: Academics graduating in catch-up game: Junior Kiwis a testing ground for British counterparts. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
FEW people expect the Great Britain Under-19 side to beat their New Zealand counterparts at Wembley tomorrow. The very fact, however, that they will go on to the same pitch as the awesome Kiwis without the certainty of a heavy defeat is a vindication of the blood and tears that have been spilled over the reorganisation of this level of the game.

The argument over the running of youth rugby in Britain threatened to split the game permanently into warring amateur and professional camps. Even now that the Academy competition, attached to professional clubs, is established as the top level of play for teenagers, some of the wounds still chafe.

'But I dread to think what this tour would have been like in the pre-Academy days,' the League's Academy executive, John Kear, said.

The Junior Kiwis, showing the benefits of long ago bringing all youth rugby league in New Zealand under the same banner, have won all their games in Britain so far - most startlingly when they put a half-century of points past Wigan, by far the best under-19 club side in the country.

'There have been some big scores, but the clubs' performances against them have been improving and the games against Lancashire and Yorkshire were real contests,' Kear said. 'That has already justified setting up the Academy and I hope that Saturday will justify it further.'

The aim of the Academy has been to bring the very best young players in the country under the wing of senior clubs and into regular competition with each other.

It cannot take all the credit for the quality of young player that is starting to emerge because a prodigy like tomorrow's captain, Andrew Farrell, only stayed long enough in Wigan's Academy side to get his bearings around the dressing-rooms before progressing rapidly to the reserves and now, at 18, the first team.

On the other hand, Kear can point to Jason Robinson, who will appear in the senior Test against New Zealand, for which the youngsters provide the curtain-raiser. He spent a year in the Academy at Wigan and leap-frogged the reserves to enter the top flight looking virtually the finished article.

'I also look at a player like Iestyn Harris,' Kear said, referring to one of his wings tomorrow, 'who in my opinion is the most improved youth footballer in the country.

'He has developed in the Academy to the point where he was under serious consideration for a senior cap for Wales and will be in the Warrington first team before the end of the season. That couldn't have happened under the previous set-up in youth rugby.'

Kear does not delude himself that every problem has been solved; one thing the squabble over 500 young players in the Academy proved was that there are not enough to go around.

'In the last couple of years, though, youth football in Britain has reached the point where it has never been in a better state,' he said. 'But we have given the Southern Hemisphere a decade start. This is a catching-up operation.'

That is what the British side are up against at Wembley, which is all the more reason for Kear to appeal to spectators to arrive there early and give them the maximum of encouragement.

There is no guarantee that they can inspire their elders by completing the catching-up process at the expense of the Junior Kiwis, but he does promise that anyone unacquainted with the revolution that has been going on will be astonished by the quality of what they see.