Rugby League: Debutants on a different scale

Super League countdown: There is no safety net for Wakefield unlike fellow newcomers Gateshead
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THERE WILL be two clubs battling to establish their credibility when the Super League season opens this weekend. One is a novel and vaguely glamorous proposition; the other is familiar, faded and, according to everyone's assessment but their own, doomed.

Gateshead Thunder and Wakefield Trinity - now with a superfluous "Wildcats" added to their famous and distinctive name - have both been built from scratch for the formidable challenge that lies ahead. But while Gateshead, as a new club in new territory, have been freed from the overseas quota to bring in as many Australians of proven quality as they can afford, Wakefield have had to grab what they can from wherever they can get it.

That is not the only inequality. The Trinity coach, Andy Kelly, admits to more than a twinge of envy at the three-year security blanket with which the Thunder have been provided and which ensures they cannot be relegated from Super League in that time.

"We both have teams full of new players," he says. "The only different thing for Gateshead is that they can sit there getting to know each other for three years and we can't. The fair thing would have been for us to be in the same situation, but the fact is that we aren't."

Super League and Gateshead argue that without safety from relegation during the formative years, no new franchise would get off the ground. As things are shaping up for the Thunder, however, the importance of that concession could be purely academic.

The new club has had just two run-outs - an 18-8 defeat at Castleford and a 50-point romp at Hunslet - but the signs are that Gateshead could be more closely concerned with the top of the table than the bottom.

They were looking so slick at Hunslet, for instance, that their captain, Kerrod Walters, took the unusual step of asking the referee to allow their opponents to hang on longer in the tackle in order to make their job more difficult.

They are unlikely to make to make any similar request when Leeds travel to the Gateshead International Stadium this Sunday night, but it was clear from the expression on the face of their coach, Shaun McRae, last week that he is now satisfied that he has a highly capable squad at his disposal.

"When Walters, Willie Peters and Will Robinson move the football, they are a very good combination. Overall, I've got to be very happy with the way it's taking shape," he said.

When Kelly claims the same brand of confidence, the world of rugby league is more sceptical. The long, drawn-out process surrounding Trinity's promotion and funding left him with only a couple of months to put a team together and it is top-heavy with players who have had more than their share of injury problems or have had trouble settling elsewhere. Despite that, Kelly - who proved himself a resourceful young coach in steering Trinity to the title ahead of more fancied rivals last season - believes he has gathered a squad that will surprise a lot of people.

"I'm very positive about the side I've got," he insists. "We've only been together for six our eight weeks, but there's already a nice feeling of gelling about it. We're becoming more and more positive about what we're doing and looking forward to it, starting with our first match at Castleford on Sunday."

Kelly's key signing is undoubtedly Tony Kemp, the Kiwi international stand-off or loose forward from Leeds. "His value is already showing through. He's a very professional type of person and it's rubbing off on everybody."

It is via players like Kemp and the equally talented but never wholly settled Willie Poching that Kelly hopes to defy all the predictions.

"It's something we have to be aware of," he says of the universal expectation that Wakefield will be back where some consider they belong this time next year. "We are having our season written off for us before it even starts and to have all the forecasts telling you what a poor season you're going to have can be a bit hurtful.

"But if it wounds your pride you come out fighting."

The rhetoric at Gateshead is more along the lines of winning friends and influencing people; filling the International Stadium could represent a bigger hurdle to them than merely winning matches. It is unfortunate for them that their first game coincides with Newcastle United 's FA Cup- tie against Everton two and a half hours earlier.

It is typical of them, though, that they will try to turn a handicap into an asset, by arranging for announcements at St James' Park inviting Geordies to cross the Tyne to watch a second match that evening.

Like Wakefield, Gateshead have secured a lucrative sponsorship deal - the two newcomers are the envy of many existing Super League clubs in that respect - but they have also broken new ground by advertising on Tyne-Tees Television.

Their situation obliges them to be innovators. Wakefield, despite needing to take any televised matches to Barnsley because Belle Vue is not up to the job, will try to tap into a great reservoir of tradition and stubborn pride.

They will both be watched with enormous interest - and will be watching each other more keenly than most, comparing how two operations coming at it from completely different directions cope with the challenge ahead.