Rugby League: Britain and Australia face the ultimate test: The World Cup final at Wembley on Saturday is the latest in a puzzling line. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
GREAT BRITAIN and Australia meet on Saturday in the World Cup final at Wembley, but the prize for which they will be competing exists in most minds as a vague and puzzling concept.

It might pre-date rugby union's equivalent by several decades, but the competition has only rarely seized the public imagination, and its history and present structure are confusing.

The idea of a tournament between the world's league-playing nations was first mooted in 1933 by France which had just become the fourth member of that restricted club.

However, it was not until 1954 that the World Cup took place, and even then it met with a lukewarm response, especially from the majority of Britain's top players who made themselves unavailable because of dissatisfaction over the financial terms.

Great Britain nevertheless won that inaugural competition, finishing top of a round-robin table and beating France 16-12 in the final at the Parc des Princes. This year's final has produced a small wave of nostalgia for a similar success against the odds, and replica 1954 Great Britain shirts are selling steadily.

In 1957 the tournament was organised along similar lines and Australia, with home advantage, emerged triumphant.

Great Britain won at home in 1960, but the concept almost died in the mid-Sixties when Australia refused to host a tournament which it feared would be a financial disaster. However, when there was a revival in 1968 they lifted the cup.

Another twist was added to the chequered history of the competition in 1970 when the trophy disappeared after Australia had retained it in London, and it only re- emerged 20 years later - on a rubbish tip.

In 1972 Great Britain took the title on the basis of their better record in the earlier rounds after drawing 10-10 with Australia in Lyons.

Great Britain split into England and Wales for the 1975 tournament which was divided between both hemispheres. Australia won on that occasion and were also victorious in what seemed likely at the time to be the last running of an unloved competition two years later.

It was 1985 before the idea was resuscitated - with a very different format. A four-year cycle of matches, which included Papua New Guinea for the first time, eventually produced a final between Australia and New Zealand in front of 46,000 at Eden Park in Auckland.

It was the biggest day in rugby league history for New Zealand - a claim echoed by the build-up for Wembley on Saturday, but the Kiwis failed to deliver the desired victory, losing 25-12.

A similar system over the last four years has seen Great Britain finish second in the table to Australia, who have conceded home advantage to allow the game to find its biggest possible audience.

In league's centenary year, 1995, there will be a return to a tournament located in one country; South Africa, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Fiji may swell the numbers in Britain to eight.

In the meantime, rugby league determines its world champions by one of the most long, drawn- out processes in sport. There will be few people in the crowd of more than 70,000 at Wembley who will know for certain how the two sides qualified.

But, just as in 1989, the drawn- out preamble has produced the right match - one which, it is hoped, will project the international game to the British public in an unprecedented way.

But can the winners truly call themselves the best side in the world? The Australia coach, Bob Fulton, has his doubts. 'To me, Test series' will always be the main thing,' he said. 'But Great Britain will call themselves world champions if they win and I'm certain we'll do the same.'

WORLD CUP WINNERS

1954: Great Britain (in France).

1957: Australia (Australia).

1960: Great Britain (England).

1968: Australia (Australia and NZ).

1970: Australia (England).

1972: Great Britain (France).

1975: Australia (played in both hemispheres).

1977: Australia (Australia and NZ).

1988: Australia (both hemispheres).

--------------------------------------------------------------- 1992 TABLE ---------------------------------------------------------------- P W L F A Pts Australia 8 8 0 236 68 16 Great Britain 8 5 3 215 79 10 New Zealand 8 5 3 203 120 10 France 8 2 6 80 247 4 Papua NG 8 0 8 84 304 0 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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