Rugby League: Australians find a berth for the 'lucky' Sailor: A happy Kangaroo contemplates the big hop from reserve grade to the highest international level. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
SMALL wonder that Wendell Sailor exemplifies the smiling face of the 1994 Kangaroo tour. 'I am,' he says, 'the happiest bloke in the world.'

Sailor, one of only two uncapped players in Australia's team to play Wigan this afternoon, has suddenly found, over the last few months, plenty to be happy about.

In that time, he has gone from the obscurity of reserve-grade football at the Brisbane Broncos to the verge of claiming a place in the most powerful rugby league side in the world.

'I still can't believe it,' he says. 'I must just be a lucky person. If I had any ambition this season, it was probably to cement a place in first grade at the Broncos next year - but here I am and enjoying every minute of it.'

The turning point for a man who promises to follow in the long line of devastating Australian wingmen came courtesy of Wigan in the World Club Challenge in June.

With the Test winger, Willie Carne, switched to full-back, Brisbane brought Sailor in on the wing and he displayed all his dazzling potential to a 54,000 crowd at the ANZ Stadium and a world-wide television audience.

'I was really impressed just to be involved in that game,' he says. 'It was a bit mixed for me - a few bad things and a few good things.'

The good included a glorious try, sheer speed taking him past his opposite number, Martin Offiah, for the score that threatened to bring Brisbane back into the game.

The bad consisted of a few traces of navety in defence, something that can be forgiven at the age of 19; he turned 20 the following month.

Sailor was in the frame for tour selection from that match onwards, but it was still a surprise to a genuinely unassuming young man when he got the nod, ahead of several more experienced candidates.

Better still, he got the chance to impress in the first match in Britain that traditionally identifies one or two players who are going to make a hitherto unsuspected impact on the tour.

Sailor scored two memorable tries against Cumbria at Workington last Sunday, the second of them as lavish and extravagant in its inception and execution as anything that Offiah has produced, taking him from try-line to try-line and leaving a string of Cumbrians bemused by the best body-swerve any of them can ever have seen.

Although he has arrived in the British consciousness with the same speed he showed at Derwent Park, Sailor is actually something of a late developer. His schoolboy football, in the small town of Sarina, near Mackay in Central Queensland, was only modestly successful.

'I didn't make the Queensland Schoolboys side and I was turned down by three Sydney clubs,' he recalls.

Even the decision of the Brisbane Broncos to take him on was something of an afterthought, he says. It was the club's trainer, Kevin Giles, who persuaded them to sign him, and he was more immediately impressed by his ability as an athlete than as a footballer.

'I think they were only looking for me to make up the numbers at that stage,' Sailor says.

It is easy to see why Giles was excited. Sailor is that rare and mouthwatering combination of a big, strapping character with perfect balance as well as pace.

Although he has been timed at 10.9 for the 100 metres, Giles believes that the 400 would be his ideal distance and that he could reach Olympic standard if he was to concentrate on running instead of rugby.

It takes more than outstanding ability to get you into the Aussie Test side, however, and Sailor knows that he faces formidable competition.

There is the regular Test winger, Michael Hancock, a handful for Leeds every time he got the ball on Wednesday. There is the silken class of Andrew Ettingshausen, who scored a hat- trick at Headingley, and would have played today but for a knock to the thigh he picked up.

There is also Rod Wishart, who, apart from his general ability, covers one of the few relative weaknesses in this Australian party by being an expert goal-kicker.

'It's going to be a real battle for the wing places,' Sailor says. 'It doesn't really look too good for me, although I think I can make out a good case for a place in the 17.'

Sailor underestimates the impact he has already made on this tour, both as a player and as one of its more charismatic personalities - the crowds of children around him in Workington were evidence of that.

Another eye-catching performance at Central Park this afternoon would make it difficult to hold him back any longer and the fact that Wigan are the opposition will put an extra spring in his stride.

'Every game at these historic grounds in England is special for me, but against a side that can call itself world champions it's extra special,' says a man who is emerging as rather special himself.

(Photograph omitted)