Rugby League: Famous fortresses set to survive the siege

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THE key battles of the new season will consist of attempts to storm two redoubtable fortresses - those flying the banners of Wigan and the touring Australians.

Wigan again tower above the landscape of the domestic game. Last season was a troubled one in many respects, but they still won all but one of the major prizes. John Dorahy's quixotic determination to refashion attitudes at the club has given way to the benign rule of the ultimate Central Park insider, Graeme West.

The players would vote for the new regime every time and say that their more relaxed summer has left them full of running for the start of the campaign. Wigan will be watched closely, however, for any signs that the player power that got rid of Dorahy has ushered in an era where the senior players get all their own way.

West has shown encouraging signs of being his own man, though, by announcing that even his biggest stars will have to come back via the reserve side after injury or other absence from the first team. That should produce some interesting situations.

In Barrie McDermott, Terry O'Connor and Henry Paul, Wigan have invested in rich potential, although players of the stature that they are replacing are bound to be missed at times. The other certainty is that Denis Betts and Frano Botica, due to join the exodus to the Auckland Warriors at the end of the season, will not have to make many mistakes to have the Popular Side muttering that their minds are elsewhere.

Wigan were taken all the way by Bradford and Warrington last season, and those two sides are the logical challengers again. Bradford, defying their traditional image, will be more penetrative in attack than ever; good judges in New Zealand say that Robbie Paul is even more talented than his brother, Henry, and the French centre, David Fraisse, is one of the game's most unpredictable runners.

The feeling at the end of last season, though, was that Bradford were marginally more philosophical about finishing behind Wigan on points difference than were Warrington. The club from the west of the Pennines might be a shade hungrier, and they have added short-term muscle to their pack in Bruce McGuire and long- term potential at stand-off in Francis Maloney. One quality winger and a Test-class hooker grafted on to their squad would make them even more formidable.

Of the rest of the pack, St Helens are likely to show the greatest improvement, partly because last season's effort was so mediocre. Apart from Bobby Goulding's proven ability - if not temperament - it will be intriguing to see how another stormy petrel, Scott Gibbs, adapts to his new code. Less doubt surrounds their other signing from rugby union, the Samoan, Apollo Perelini, a player who looks made for league.

Leeds are convinced that this is their year at last and they undeniably have their strongest squad for many seasons. Like Halifax and Castleford, the other feasible contenders for the top four places, they will need to show much greater consistency before their claims can be taken seriously.

In the Second Division, the London Broncos are clearly potential champions, even if the signing of Mal Meninga turns out to be on the extraordinary basis of him only playing home games. Keighley and Huddersfield have both recruited ambitiously, while Leigh and Hull Kingston Rovers retain clusters of players of First Division class.

For many clubs, especially in the Second Division, the question over the next nine months will not be whether they can win trophies but whether they will survive at all. A survey into the future of the game to be unveiled at the end of this month is likely to point the way towards a leaner and supposedly fitter league, with amalgamation and natural wastage reducing the number of clubs.

At least the economy of the British game gets its customary, four- yearly boost this autumn with the visit of the Kangaroos, and nothing, of course, would lift the collective spirits like a British victory in the Test series.

There have been times during the last 10 years when it was possible to look at the comings and goings from the Australian side and argue that this was 'a good time' to play them. This, I fear, is not one of them. Australia is producing better players in greater quantities than ever before, and the way that a Great Britain Academy side containing our best young prospects was ruthlessly dismantled on tour this summer is just one demonstration of that.

Malcolm Reilly will need his best 13 on the field and playing to their absolute capacity to have a chance of ambushing the Kangaroos in the first Test at Wembley on 22 October. Otherwise, Australia, like Wigan, will keep their fortress intact for another season.

(Photograph omitted)