Rugby League / First Test: Captains carrying the hopes of nations: Meninga makes his last stand

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The Independent Online
SPORTING heroes forever run races against themselves, matching or, ideally, surpassing their last performance. Around them critics bray. Time assaults the reflexes and brings the fear of waning powers. Can they perform as well as they did last week, last year, a decade ago?

Mal Meninga, 34, who leads Australia against Great Britain in the John Smith's rugby league Test at Wembley today, has been going at it for 16 years and will retire after this, his fourth tour. Finished? Hardly. 'But nobody can go on for ever,' he said.

It was early in the afternoon of a grey day in Leeds and Meninga could easily be persuaded to address issues that are not entirely personal.

Today's match was uppermost in his mind but he is not oblivious to the future of rugby league in a country that largely remains cool to it.

Progress? Unavoidably, he perceives the situation to be much as it was when he had a marvellous season in the colours of St Helens in 1984-85.

Correctly, he concludes that many of the old problems still exist for the game here - football's overwhelming popularity and a prejudice so deep- rooted in rugby union that none of its correspondents accepted an invitation to lunch with officials of the Rugby League in London on Thursday.

Conditioned by the egalitarian attitude that energises sport in his country, Meninga finds bias against the 13-a-side code baffling. 'A big difference in Australia is that one game is rarely held up against another,' he said.

'Rugby league, rugby union, Aussie Rules and soccer live together.'

Meninga does not have to state facts like the indomitable recovery from career-threatening injuries (especially breaking his right arm four times in 18 months) to emphasise a stature beyond normal sporting achievement. His sheer physical presence and confident bearing do that for him. 'A tremendous player,' said the Salford scrum-half, Andy Gregory, whose feats for Wigan and Great Britain established him as one of the game's outstanding figures.

'So powerful and great hands.'

Four years ago, Gregory took part in the second Test at Old Trafford that Meninga remembers as one the most important matches he has ever played in.

With less than a minute left to play, 10-10, and having lost the first Test at Wembley, the Kangaroos were back against their try-line when the scrum-half Ricky Stuart broke away. Straining in support, shamelessly blocking would-be tacklers, Meninga shouldered over to level the series.

Thrilling? 'What I felt most of all was relief,' Meninga said. 'I remember looking around the dressing- room and thinking that I had never seen so many shattered players. We were drained, physically and mentally.'

From the look of Meninga it is difficult to imagine that the description could ever be applied to him personally. An extremely large man of more than six feet and weighing around 17st, he appears indestructible with the ease of movement you come to associate with outstanding athletes.

There is something else about him, too. It is a sense of responsibility, not only for Australia's aspirations on this tour, but the future of rugby league. 'A lot of progress has been made back home,' he said, 'and we appear to have taken greater advantage of the rule changes that were introduced to make the game more exciting for the public. For example, I don't think rugby league is being policed here as it should be. Referees are not firm enough.

We are now conditioned to play an open game because that is critical to rugby league's well-being.'

With an admiration that puts entrenched attitudes to shame, Meninga picks a rugby union encounter between Australia and England in the early Eighties as one of his most exciting sporting experiences. 'A tremendous match,' he recalled. 'But then think about the World Cup final between England and Australia at Twickenham three years ago. Negative. Dreadful. Our rugby union players say they would love to throw the ball around but the coaches don't encourage it, so you end up with a kicking game. I don't see any sense in that because it isn't what the public want.'

Soon to take up a post in marketing, probably with the Brisbane Broncos, but possibly on a national basis, Meninga is encouraged to believe that prejudice against his game will be difficult to sustain. 'Recently, we played at Eden Park in New Zealand, which was a breakthrough in anybody's language, but, unfortunately I can't imagine the Rugby Football Union will ever agree to put on a rugby league international at Twickenham. I'm sure that if it was left to the players none of this would be a problem. There is too much politics in sport, too much self-interest.'

In a promotional role, and rugby league could have no better representative, Meninga's great qualities as a player - suprisingly understated in some quarters - will go before him.

Wembley promises another special experience. 'I love the way British audiences respond to sport,' he said. 'The singing, the chanting. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.'

Today if somebody were to ask what a truly great sportsman looked like, whose image would come to mind?

(Photograph omitted)