Rugby League: Australia give hints on improvements: The imposing players rampaging across the north have underlined the need for change here. Dave Hadfield considers the new way

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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY it is 1982 again. Australia, who play the next game of their tour at Halifax tomorrow, are not just playing better rugby league than Great Britain, they are playing a different game entirely. The question now is two-fold: How did it happen and what should the code here do to try to catch up once more? If we will listen to it, there is plenty of good, clear advice on offer.

Unlike 12 years ago, when the Kangaroos swept through a largely unsuspecting Britain, there has been little excuse this time for being unaware of what was looming. Televised Australian matches are beamed to Britain every week and it has been easy enough to spot the difference.

'When I watched the second State of Origin match, I knew we were in trouble,' the Leeds coach, Doug Laughton, said. 'They were throwing the ball about all the time, and that is the one thing they weren't doing before.'

Laughton was right about Leeds being in trouble, but the implication is that even British sides showing more grit than they did that night last week have also got problems they cannot handle. When the Great Britain Academy coach, John Kear, returned from a depressingly unsuccessful Under- 19 tour this summer, he presented a report warning that the game at all levels in Australia was evolving in a radically different direction. In the first two weeks of the Kangaroo tour, he has already been proved right.

And yet there should be no great surprise about it. The Australian coach, Bob Fulton, has been saying for the past two years that the introduction of the 10-metre offside rule would make the expansive style of sides such as Canberra, Brisbane and his own Manly dominant in Australia.

'Once you start to use those 10 metres, you need fast forwards with a side-step who will make the ball available,' Fulton said. The way to get the best out of the rule, as it is applied in Australia, is to move the ball rapidly from hand to hand, and it is that fluency that even the best British sides are finding impossible to address.

Fulton also believes that there are two other key differences in the way the rules are applied that have contributed to the faster rate of evolution in his country. Lying- on in the tackle and other attempts to slow the play-the-ball are punished more strictly, which also has the effect of speeding up the game. The rules forbidding the stripping of the ball out of the tackle and the head-high tackle are imposed more rigorously, giving more encouragement to the ball-carrier who is looking to keep it alive.

The prohibition on head-tackling is just the same in Britain as it is in Australia. It is the seriousness with which it is treated that differs; players have been virtually put out of the game there for the sort of tackle for which the Wigan prop, Barrie McDermott, received a two-match ban this week. 'Once players stop having to have eyes in the back of their heads, looking for the high shots, they can develop their ball skills,' Fulton said.

British forwards are traditionally regarded as superior in that department. The way that men like Ian Roberts and Dean Pay have been standing and slipping the ball at every opportunity on this tour, however, suggests that it is time for a reassesment.

The game in Britain has shown an awareness of the need to improve refereeing by bringing in the leading Australian referee, Greg McCallum, to coach our officials. 'I am not here to change the style of British referees,' McCallum said. That is the politic thing to say, but without changing the approach in the areas that Fulton specifies it is hard to see how the gap can be closed.

There is another set of reasons, though, for Australia's surge forward, and they have to do with the different ways the game is organised in the two countries. A top Australian player such as Laurie Daley expresses amazement at the number of games that his British contemporaries are expected to endure in a season. Daley might have to play 25 club games, almost always at the rate of one per week. Wigan's leading players, say, pass the 40 mark, and regularly find themselves playing nine matches in 14 days. 'It's impossible. You can't do it, not the way the game is nowadays,' Daley said.

The only way British players can handle such a workload is to freewheel against less demanding opposition. The answer, Daley says, can only lie in a system which gives them more consistently intense games, but fewer of them. That contention is backed by one reason that British players have given for decamping to the Winfield Cup: after year after overcrowded year in Britain, playing once a week sounds like paradise to them.

The game here had a chance during its heart-searching over a premier league to address this problem. It cravenly failed to do so. The top division, whatever it is to be called, will remain at 16, with the result that our best players are still going to be better prepared for a month in the trenches than 80 minutes against the Australians.