Rugby League: Alfie finds what life is all about: Dave Hadfield on the brilliant Australian scrum-half who has passed into folklore

IT IS a symptom of how the tide can turn in rugby league that until this summer there were those within the Great Britain camp who regarded Allan Langer as Australia's potential weakness.

It seems a bizarre theory now, but there were reasons for it. At Wembley in 1990, the experiment of pairing Langer with another scrum-half, Ricky Stuart, had gone horribly wrong, and Great Britain's victory had seen Langer lose his Test place for the rest of the tour.

He was back in the line-up by the time the Lions toured this summer, but the memory of his ineffectiveness at Wembley, and even of his appearance for the Rest of the World in Britain two years earlier, lingered in British minds.

There was concern about his short kicking game near the try- line, but not about the whole, compact package that was Langer.

This year, however, Langer has proved that he really is as good as those in his native Queensland have always claimed. Hard though Shaun Edwards grafted in the deciding Test at Lang Park in July, his opponent's growth into a player of true world stature was obvious.

On the domestic scene, no Australian player has dominated a season the way Langer has during the one just ended. He took all the major individual awards, including the most prestigious, the Rothmans Medal, and then captained the Brisbane Broncos to their 28-8 win over St George in the Grand Final of the Winfield Cup, scoring two tries and taking the Clive Churchill Medal as man of the match in the process.

Langer has grown up in the shadow of strong characters such as his coach in his formative years in the Queensland town of Ipswich, Tommy Raudonikis, and his original half-back partner and captain at the Broncos, Wally Lewis.

He feels that taking the Brisbane captaincy this season is the factor that has expanded his repertoire as a player. 'I take more responsibility now and that has all come with the captaincy of the Broncos,' he said. 'And being part of a side that has only lost four games all season gives you plenty of confidence.'

Langer has good grounds for that confidence, because there is little in the scrum-half textbook in which he does not excel. He is electrifyingly quick, has the vision and technique to pick out the players around him with long, flat passes, and, for a man of 5ft 5in, he is freakishly strong in attack and defence.

Advertisers in Australia would have you believe that is because he eats so much bread. Langer - and his mum - star in the television promotion of what is now the country's best-selling loaf.

He also has what must surely be the unique distiction for a rugby player of having a doll named after him. Children in Australia have Alfie dolls on their Christmas lists, and Alfie in Australia means only one thing; it is the nickname by which Langer is invariably known, because the city slickers in Brisbane reckon that coming from Ipswich makes him an alien life form.

There are no Ellery Hanley dolls - not even non-talking ones - and no Will Carlings on toy shop shelves. It is a small but revealing indication of his popularity at home.

There is recognition on both sides of the world that Langer is not only bankable, but something very special on the field. Peter Sterling, his predecessor as Australia's regular scrum-half, has no qualms about calling him the best player in the world.

Alex Murphy, the coach of Huddersfield, Australia's opponents tonight in the first match of their warm-up programme for the World Cup final in two weeks' time and most people's choice as Britain's best-ever in the position, goes further.

'He is the best we have seen for a very long time,' Murphy said. 'But that is because he is given the freedom to do what he does best. He is allowed to attack from his own half and to keep the ball alive and that is his natural game.'

Only a few ghosts lurking at Wembley Stadium remain to be convinced of how devastating that natural game has become. Langer calls that afternoon there two years ago 'the most disappointing of my career' and admits that the memory of it will give him an extra impetus on 24 October.

Britain in the past might have seen him as a bit of a luxury, like Barbie's Ken. But, given any sort of leeway, Alfie will play the role of Action Man at Wembley.

(Photograph omitted)

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