Rugby League / First Test: Make or break time for British reputations: In-form Australians look more than capable of putting Hanley's hopefuls to the sword at Wembley today

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ELLERY HANLEY'S status as the talisman of the British game will be subjected to the most searching scrutiny at Wembley this afternoon, when his side start as distant second favourites to an Australian team who look ominously capable of destroying reputations.

One of the attractions of having Hanley in charge is the confidence he exudes. As a Test player, there was never anything remotely fretful in his demeanour, no matter what the situation, and as a coach he is bound to be a reassuring influence.

'If I'm not confident, there's no way that the players can be confident,' he said. Hanley gives off all the right signals, which goes a long way to explaining the respect he commands among the Australians.

But if his confidence is not in doubt, what is more open to debate is whether he has much to be confident about. Against an Australian side at the top of their form, Great Britain desperately needed the best 13 on the field at Wembley this afternoon.

For a variety of reasons, that will not happen. The loss of Paul Newlove with a torn knee ligament is a severe blow and there must be doubts over Alan Hunte's ability to cope in the centres against the combination of size and speed represented by Mal Meninga and Steve Renouf.

Even more damaging could be the absence of an entire first- choice front row. Both Kelvin Skerrett and Martin Dermott are injured, while Andy Platt is in New Zealand preparing for a new career with the Auckland Warriors.

Were it not for concern over sending the wrong messages to other players contemplating throwing in their lot with Winfield Cup clubs, the temptation to call him back must surely have been strong.

That is not to disparage the players who will be involved. Chris Joynt has the strength and determination to play prop almost as well as he does back row and Karl Harrison will take the ball up until he drops through exhaustion. But it is asking an awful lot of them to form a double act capable of matching the Australians.

Another with a major challenge to meet is Daryl Powell, an outstanding player at club level but unproven as a Test stand-off against an opponent of the calibre of Laurie Daley, who has been relishing the unaccustomed feeling of being fully fit in England and has been running riot by way of celebration.

Daley has played against Powell in the centres but cannot remember him, which says something about the way that much of the British player's best work goes unnoticed, except by his team-mates.

Another key encounter will be on the wing, where Wendell Sailor, despite the No 5 on his back, will be in direction opposition to Martin Offiah.

The 20-year-old Brisbane winger's form on this tour is such that drafting him in, even for such an experienced player as the injured Michael Hancock, hardly counts as weakening the side.

Sailor, who still refused to believe he was in the side until they were named on Tuesday, is nevertheless wary of Offiah. Fast as he is, he knows Offiah is faster. 'If I let him get on the outside, I'm in trouble. My target is that he won't score on my wing,' he said.

Offiah had his one poor game of the season so far for Wigan against Australia; apart from that he has been in predatory form. He also has the remarkable track record of playing in all three of Great Britain's recent victories over Australia, in 1988, 1990 and 1992 and of usually producing something special at Wembley.

Areas where it is easy to imagine Britain embarrassing Australia are few, however. The short kicking game is one of them, but Britain look under-staffed in that department with only Sean Edwards having any great expertise to draw upon. It could well point to an early call from the bench for Bobby Goulding.

Whatever the details of his game plan, Hanley as a coach will be judged in the only realistic way a coach can be judged - on whether he draws more out of a team than appears to be there. There is no denying his inspirational qualities as a captain and team-mate, but as generations of players have discovered, exerting the same influence from a seat in the stand or dug-out is a very different thing.

Then there is the worrying fact of his lack of experience. Even if you buy the whole story that he does all the coaching at Leeds, is that really much of a recommendation?

It is yet another tribute to the force of the man's personality that he can convince so many people that he is a Great Britain coach on such thin evidence.

There are straws to be grasped at. Great Britain tend to do well when they obviously have no chance. Australia, by the very nature of their new, expansive style, will make some mistakes.

And, oh yes, it is turning cold. Cold enough for Laurie Nichols, the shadow boxing Australian Supporter From Hell, to consider an extra singlet - and that would be a British triumph in itself.

(Table omitted) Captains courageous, page 44