Rugby League: ET means the world to league

Dave Hadfield looks at the Shark who may prove the greatest catch of all
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When the clubs in the first phase in Europe of rugby league's World Club Championship were gathered together last week, everything was going swimmingly until one player was snatched away for TV interviews.

At that point, seasoned newspapermen threw down their pens in disgust; normally phlegmatic radio commentators threw tantrums. There are plenty of brilliant players involved in this tournament, but only one that we would fight over.

Being fought over is nothing new to Andrew Ettingshausen, the perennial golden boy of Australian rugby league who leads the Cronulla Sharks against Warrington at Wildespool tonight. Indeed, his signing for Super League may yet be seen as the turning point in the battle for control of the world game.

Ettingshausen is, quite simply, the game's most marketable commodity. His film star looks, unblemished by more than a decade of first-grade football, have been lusted after by advertisers and are proof positive to the mothers of Australia that playing league would not necessarily turn their little boys into battle-scarred wrecks.

Super League had to have him, as they knew that, if he signed, he would bring with him the rest of the Cronulla side, plus numerous players from further afield who would see which way the wind was blowing. But, of all the players offered a fortune, ET was the one who wanted to know how it would all affect the juniors.

"I had to make a decision," he recalled, "on not just what was right for me, but what was right for the game as a whole. The juniors are the stepping-stone to first grade football and they had to be considered. They persuaded me that junior football was a priority and I think they have lived up to that."

Another factor in Ettingshausen's decision was the promise, vague as it was at the time, of more and better international competition.

"At the time, I felt that the game was stagnating. Other sports in Australia were putting on the pressure and were starting to overtake rugby league. No one was willing to make the decisions that were needed."

Ettingshausen could have few complaints about the way the game has treated him personally. He played first grade for his local Cronulla Sharks when he was still at school and toured Britain and France as one of the star turns in 1990 and 1994.

He also has fond memories of a season in 1985-86 with Leeds, where he won a place in Yorkshire hearts with his pace, grace and clean-cut charm. "All my trips across to England have been really enjoyable and they mean that I'm able to prepare the younger blokes in the squad for what they're going to find here.

"I've told them that the atmosphere at matches will be absolutely electric, with far more singing and chanting than you would ever hear in Australia. But I've also told them that the people here in the north of England really appreciate good rugby league and not to be too surprised if they give us a few rounds of applause."

At 31, the boy wonder is now almost an elder statesman in a young Cronulla side. It is in the opportunities that this competition gives to those up-and- coming players that he finds much of the vindication of Super League's determination to alter the game's direction.

"It's a magnificent opportunity for them," he said. "Players who have just retired and have missed all this are very envious."

Among his team-mates, Ettingshausen does not detect any arrogance to match the bookies' odds in Australia that suggest there will be no British clubs in the semi-finals. "I've told them its going to be very hard and tough," the captain said. In players such as David Peachey, Richard Barnett and Mat Rogers, ET now has a backline of dazzling runners operating around him. He intends to continue guiding them for as long as possible.

"I've signed up for another three years, so I'll be a Shark till the end of my days, and I'll keep on turning up for New South Wales and Australia for as long as they keep inviting me," he said.

It will be a while, then, before he can concentrate on the other passion in his life - fishing, which was once indirectly responsible for taking a season out of his career when he contracted malaria making a documentary in Papua New Guinea.

If he ever devotes himself to rod and line full-time, he will undoubtedly make it look the ultimate all-Australian activity. The sea-fishing enthusiasts and the fresh-water mob will no doubt be grappling with each other for his endorsement.