Rugby League: British sides' failure adds to sense of meaninglessness for WCC

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The Independent Online
There is a part of the world that is playing no part in the final of the Visa World Club Championship in Auckland today. Dave Hadfield looks at the ramifications of the lack of any British involvement in what was conceived as one of international rugby league's big events.

My friends in New Zealand thought it was some sort of elaborate hoax when I told them I was still coming here for the final of the World Club Championship.

"Strewth," said one, "that means there's one more person interested in it in Britain than there is here." That is a slight exaggeration, but this morning's climax of the competition has hardly set pulses racing, either in New Zealand or in Australia, the home base of the two finalists. There was not, for instance, a single word about it in either of Sydney's main daily papers - one of them Murdoch-owned - yesterday.

It would have been different in New Zealand if the Auckland Warriors had made it to the final, as they almost did in a stirring semi in Brisbane. But the thing that has fatally weakened the credibility of the competition from the start has been the failure of British teams to perform.

It is fair to say that the reputation of the British game has never been lower in the southern hemisphere. You can guarantee a good laugh in bars in Sydney or Auckland by merely mentioning the names of some our leading club sides.

The strange thing is that there has not been a commensurate rise in the standing of Super League in Australasia. We might be greatly impressed by what Brisbane, Cronulla and the rest have done to our best sides, but it cuts little ice here. Victories in the WCC are seen as cheap and meaningless and certainly not as constituting an argument for the viability of Australian Super League as a stand-alone entity.

Yet both semi-finals, although sparsely attended, were gripping contests. In addition, there is the compelling story of the Hunter Mariners, the doomed club that has somehow reached today's final, and their success comes close to finding a justification for the whole affair. If Australians love a battler, then they should have taken the Mariners to their hearts. So deep is the disillusionment running through the game, however, that their achievement remains generally unrecorded.

If the competition has been a disappointment in the southern hemisphere, it has been little short of a disaster in the north. No less a drum beater than the Rugby League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, has admitted that it has damaged the game's credibility in a way that will not be easy to repair.

The problem is this. We have been assured so often that the combined effect of Super League, summer rugby and full-time professionalism has raised standards behind recognition that most people believed it. Then along comes the WCC, which, to put it at its most charitable, throws that contention into severe doubt.

There are people who were happily going to domestic matches before the WCC, believing that they were seeing rugby league played to a high level, but who have stopped going, realising now that what they were seeing was entertaining but inferior.

One of the most depressing aspects of the whole business has been the way that Australian players and coaches who know better have continually parroted the party line that the game in Britain has leapt ahead. The hard evidence says otherwise and that is something that has all manner of consequences.

It was no coincidence that News Corporation began their rumblings about how their money was being spent immediately after the group stages of the WCC had drawn attention to the true state of affairs.

And now, of course, blame has to be laid. Lindsay has placed it squarely on the shoulders of British players, accusing them of not being as professional or dedicated as their Australian counterparts.

There is some truth in this. The way that too many players are full-time professionals in name only showed in the embarrassing lack of appetite and application in some matches. But who has been better placed than Lindsay over the last few years to see the warning signs and act on them?

That process has now begun, notably through Joe Lydon's recommendations, which, if followed in spirit as well as the letter, should restore some of the hunger to British domestic competition.

If standards can be raised sufficiently, there is still the germ of a good idea in the debacle of the WCC. As a top four play-off involving the best of British and the leading sides from a unified Australian competition, it would have hopes of becoming a annual highlight. In the meantime, the general indifference to events in Auckland today is the price to be paid for the British failure to meet the challenge.

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