Rugby League: Australian leagues look ready for a compromise

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The Australian Rugby League has, for the first time, announced that it is willing to work with Super League in that country to devise a combined 14-team competition for next season.

Clubs have effectively been put on notice that they should seek mergers or relocations that will create a unified national competition for 1998.

Those unwilling or unable to establish their credentials will be invited to play in a new league, which will be, to all intents and purposes, a second division.

The biggest step so far towards re-unification comes in the week that John Ribot formally stands down as the chief executive of Australian Super League, thus no doubt helping the prospect of a compromise.

Some ARL clubs, like North Sydney and Manly, have already been holding amalgamation talks with just this eventuality in mind. But others, from both camps, will find all the choices they are faced with - merger, relocation and dropping down a level - equally unpalatable. However, doubts about the willingness of the cable operation, Optus, to continue funding a separate ARL competition will focus minds wonderfully.

One immediate consequence of an Australian compromise would be that the World Club Championship will not be played in its present form next season, or indeed ever again.

A distressingly one-sided first-round of matches has already made the concept unsustainable in its current shape, but a deal in Australia will make it physically impossible to accommodate in the game's calendar. The British authorities, however, will be keen to see an annual play-off between the top four on both sides of the globe built into the settlement.

Another consequence of peace in Australia, the Leeds chief executive, Gary Hetherington, believes, would be the availability of a higher calibre of overseas player to the British game next season.

"I would defend alot of the Australian players over here this season - especially those at Leeds - from the criticism they have been taking over the last couple of weeks," he said.

"But it would be great to get the really top quality players from Australia and that may happen when the two competitions there come together.

"There are going to be elite players looking for a club and it would be tremendous to see some of the stars who have been exciting our fans in the World Club Championships."

One aspect of the fall-out from the first phase of the WCC was discussed last night when Wigan's directors tried to decide what to do about Neil Cowie, the prop who was sent home early from Australia after missing a training session.

If Cowie is placed on the transfer list, several clubs whose forward strength, or lack of it, has been exposed during the World Clubs Championship could be interested in giving him a fresh start.

Widnes Vikings have signed 23-year-old Castleford Tigers' forward Sean Richardson on a month's loan.