Rugby League: First Night - Gateshead Thunder: Gateway to a new world

The Thunder are ready to roll as Super League tries to conquer the North-east
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It was not so much a slow start in life for Britain's youngest rugby league club, more of a stationary one. As kick-off time at Castleford approached on Friday night, the Gateshead Thunder sat fuming in the bumper- to-bumper traffic on the A1.

"I thought we'd allowed for everything," said the Gateshead chief executive, Shane Richardson. "But we didn't allow for the English road system." But then merely getting the Thunder on the road in the first place has been a massive effort.

Building a club from scratch in a matter of months and in what is generally regarded as rock-solid football territory in the North-east requires plenty of vision and optimism. Fortunately, Richardson has both in abundance and managed to persuade Super League to take his baby on board for the 1999 season.

That is why anyone turning up to pay their council tax at Gateshead civic centre on Friday afternoon would have had to push their way past a bunch of broad-shouldered Australians, with the odd Irishman, Welshman and Geordie thrown in. "What's up? Aren't you going to go so good?" shouts Craig Wilson, the most extrovert of the Aussie imports to Brian Carney, who is reading his way through the job vacancy board in the foyer. Carney, signed after starring for Ireland in their two internationals last year, knows the job he wants. He wants to play on the wing for the Gateshead Thunder. The evening will tell him how good a chance he has of doing that.

The Gateshead coach, Shaun McRae, insists that the result does not matter too much. It is, after all, a pre-season friendly, in which he will be giving everyone a run, regardless of their long-term prospects. But there are some players, probably including Carney and the Tongan Epi Taione he is not sure of. "I'll have a better idea after tonight whether we need to bring some new players in," he says. For some, it could be over before it starts.

"I just want to get stuck into it," says Carney. "It's been great so far and they've really made me feel welcome. But it really starts tonight." Carney has already made a favourable impression on Gateshead's other guiding force, Kath Hetherington, whose beady eye for a player's strengths and weaknesses is legendary. "He's mad, 'im," she says. "He likes pain." There can be no higher praise and, when one of the videos screened in that linear cinema known as the A1 features a wild-eyed Irish assassin, there is a murmur of recognition on the bus.

At the other end of the scale of experience on that bus sit players like the former Australian Test hooker, Kerrod Walters, and the ex-St George and Parramatta winger and goal-kicker, Ian Herron. "I was 10 years in Sydney," says Herron. "This feels like starting afresh. It's very exciting for me." Apart from his point-scoring potential, "Chook" Herron has another indispensable function; he's the only one who can operate the video machine - vital when you aren't moving.

The delay also gives McRae time to brood a little on what his Castleford opposite number, Stuart Raper, said at their joint press conference earlier in the week. "He said that we'd brought in a lot of average players. I think you have to be a bit more than that to play for your country eight times," he says, nodding in the direction of Walters, the shaven-headed figure whose role as captain will be pivotal. "Before another match, I'd be using that comment - but not tonight."

The way the time is going, the former St Helens coach will not have time to say much more to his troops than "Put your boots on," if and when we finally arrive at Wheldon Road, but it is only a trial match we are going to be late for, so there is a notable lack of tension.

"I stitch them up," says Sheila Hunter, defining her role as the club doctor. "They're a really nice set of lads, nothing like footballers." She should know; her other sporting responsibilities include those ultimate prima donnas, the parliamentary football team.

Somewhere behind us are two coaches and a mini-bus full of Gateshead supporters; not a bad effort when you consider that they are supporting something that had not existed until Friday night. "I get the impression that people here are pretty open-minded and prepared to give it a chance," McRae says.

Then there is the importance of the Gateshead name. The town's rather beleaguered sense of civic pride, living as it does in the long shadow of the Toon across the Tyne, makes the local council enthusiastic. "That's the reason we meet at the civic centre," says Richardson. "The players can leave their cars in the car park." At the Gateshead International Stadium, to be renamed - they hope - the Thunderdome, there is too high a risk of them not being there when they get back.

A more immediate concern is getting to Castleford, which they do, perfectly co-ordinated with the end of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and less than an hour before the scheduled kick-off time.

So it is not the smoothest of starts. A late kick-off, something very close to a colour clash and, within a couple of minutes, the first mistake of the new club's career and the first points conceded. Taione, as massive as you would expect a protege of the watching Inga Tuigamala to be, is nevertheless bundled into touch to give Cas possessionand Adrian Vowles slices through his fellow Australians for a try. The result might not matter, but the credibility of the new franchise will not be helped by shipping points like that.

But that turns out to be the low point. Gateshead, despite never having played together, are better organised in both attack and defence than we had any right to expect and an 18-8 defeat, in front of a 4,000 crowd including plenty of curious neutrals, comes close to counting as a moral victory. In fact, they are in with a chance of winning until two minutes from the end when Carney, who previously had a try disallowed, loses a high kick and the loose ball is touched down. "But I tell you what - if we play with the same commitment when we've all got used to each other, we'll win a lot more matches than we lose," says Wilson.

But there are losers. Stuart Singleton, the Welsh Student international brought into the action in the second half, has split his knee-cap - a nasty injury that goes beyond Dr Hunter's powers of stitching up and which could rule him out for the whole season. For the others, even those mulling over where they went wrong, life with the Thunder has begun. They have started to do the job that they are here for.

"If we had won, it would have been a bonus," says McRae. "We didn't really expect that, but I saw some good things tonight from some tried and tested players and from our relatively inexperienced players as well. I saw some bad things too, but I thought we gave as good as we got. "I'm sounding like a person who's won a match - and we haven't won - but I'm pretty happy."