Rugby League: Faced by an increasingly uncertain future British rugby league is in a state of flux and confronted by apathy

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The Independent Online
All week long people had said that even an Australian team depleted by corporate rivalry had enough to take advantage of the problems that have grown up for rugby league in Great Britain since it jumped into Rupert Murdoch's embrace.

Those people were right. Grim predictions of a 35-point deficit and an embarrassing fall-off in attendance (an official figure of 41,000 brought some relief to a beleaguered administration) did not materialise but the recent humiliations of Super League were further emphasised by Australia's technical superiority.

When old rugby league hands speak about a future made even more uncertain by the advent of professional rugby union they see hope only in the sort of financial commitment Richard Branson has made to the London Broncos.

"The game in Britain won't survive if it remains in the hands of people who have run it as a hobby," one said on Saturday. "Results in Super League have shown that the gap between us and the southern hemisphere is enormous and unless we show that we can compete it will be Good night, Vienna."

Mike Nicholas, who made a big name for himself as a player with Warrington in the 1970s and managed the now defunct Welsh national team (a betrayal of his boundless enthusiasm), believes that league should capitalise on the advances it has made in technique and fitness.

"A great deal was made of the tackles Scott Gibbs put in for the Lions in South Africa last summer but, for goodness sake, he was doing that week in and week out in league.

"And I can't imagine that Fran Cotton was at the game today just for enjoyment. He will have been there to see the handling skills that have been developed in Australia."

Dragged out of its northern backwater, internationalised by television, British rugby league finds itself in a state of flux and confronted by apathy.

Going back three years, Jonathan Davies's marvellous solo try secured an 8-4 victory for Great Britain at Wembley before a crowd of almost 60,000. Working for television on Saturday the Welshman must have sensed a difference in atmosphere. In contrast to 1994 it was low key, raised briefly by the effort Great Britain put it to edge ahead in the first half but soon dampened by an awareness of their shortcomings.

Britain's coach, Andy Goodway, endeavoured to put a brave face on it. "Together with my staff I need to look at the tape, to go over things we can work on," he said. "We did quite well to go in front but made too many errors. Losing the first Test is a blow but it doesn't mean the series is over."

Others around the Great Britain team were less optimistic, seeing only a hard time ahead in the comparative ease with which Australia opened up the home defences. "I thought we were terrible, crap," one prominent figure said.

"All right, so we scored a couple of tries but all that did was to raise Australia's game to a level beyond anything we had going for us."

Goodway's assertion that Britain are still capable of assembling a squad to compete with Australia was hardly borne out by the difficulties his players experienced once Australia recovered from lapses in concentration to take the game away from them. "When we scored twice early on I thought we'd run up a really big score," Australia's coach, John Lang, said, "so it was frustrating to find ourselves behind."

Not for long. Australia's captain, Laurie Daley, may not be quite up to the class of their greatest stand-off, Wally Lewis, but there is not presently a better player in the position.

Daley's eagerness to make up for two previous disappointments at Wembley was marked by three splendid tries, an inspirational man-of-the match performance that utterly exposed the gamble of playing looseforward Andy Farrell as his opposite number. It was no contest.

The match was also something of a triumph for the winger Brett Mullins, whose missed tackle in 1994 enabled Davies to make the most of his imagination and pace. The first of Mullins' two tries came when he soared above three British players to catch Daley's crossfield bomb. The second was the sweetest of experiences, an 80-yard run after receiving from the pugnacious Wendell Sailor to touch down in almost the same spot as Davies.

It is difficult to see where Goodway goes from here, what he can possibly do before the remaining Tests at Old Trafford and Elland Road to restore some confidence in his players.

The frightening thing is that the split between Super League and Australian Rugby League caused Australia to travel without a number of men who would be automatic selections. No wonder many people associated with British rugby league flinch from looking into the immediate as well as the long- term future.

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