Rugby League: Global show hits Knowsley Road

Dave Hadfield on the start of a rugby league extravaganza
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Credibility will be on the line on different levels when one of the most ambitious club tournaments any sport has attempted kicks off at St Helens tonight.

The World Club Championships are a collosal undertaking and need to generate massive public interest to justify themselves.

Super League came to power on an agenda of more and better international competition, but that dimension has been flawed. It cannot stage Ashes rugby in its fullest form. The promised expansion to whole new areas of the globe remains a mirage. But this is something that Super League can do. By bringing together most of the leading club sides in the world, it can make a show of strength.

Of all the people involved, the two with the most credibility at stake are its architects, the chief executives of Super League in its two hemispheres, John Ribot and Maurice Lindsay.

Ribot is to stand down in Australia, thus removing his abrasive presence from the compromise talks with the ARL, and Lindsay has revealed that he too has been tempted to walk away.

The pay-off for all the dislocation of the Super League revolution has to be something new and special. Lindsay believes that this, even as a one-season wonder, is it. Should the Visa World Club Championship flop, his credit rating will be low.

Equally under scrutiny will be the credibility of the British game as a whole. Claims that Super League and summer rugby have vastly improved the game are overblown, but fears that they would kill it have also proved to be greatly exaggerated.

Many of the traditional virtues of the code have re-asserted themselves, but most clubs are still broke and we still seem incapable of having more than a couple really playing to the highest standards at any one time. Currently, they are Bradford and Wigan; it needs one of them, or some unconsidered outsider, to have a real stab at winning the thing if it is to be considered a success from a British point of view.

British clubs and players are highly motivated by the sheer novelty of the enterprise; the Australians possibly less so. The clubs which have arrived here have come out with all the right sentiments, but the ones on home turf have sounded a little blase.

Canberra are resting Laurie Daley against Halifax, while a coach as thorough as Canterbury's Chris Anderson admits he has not watched Wigan on video.

There is a theory that the Aussies are vulnerable this time. Their strength has been diluted by the demands of two rival camps, but strength is relative, as illustrated by the opening game tonight at Knowsley Road.

Until their recent wobble, Saints were the commanding presence on this side of the world, while Auckland have lost seven in a row and are bottom of their league.

Saints' coach, Shaun McRae, who knows most of Auckland's players from working with them during the 1995 World Cup, says: "If they are at the bottom of Super League, the teams above them must be playing some superb football.''

That is a measure of the challenge for British clubs. Even the most unsuccessful of their opponents have an aura around them.

Not everyone attending or tuning in to the WCC will understand all its myriad complexities, but they will appreciate the significance of a few victories over Brisbane, Canberra and the like, during a summer of sport flagged up as "Britain versus the World."

Five to follow in the World Club Championship

AUCKLAND WARRIORS: Scandalous under-achievers, considering the money spent on expanding the Australian competition into New Zealand. Capable of brilliant rugby in patches, but lack the powers of concentration needed. Players to watch: Matthew Ridge, Stacey Jones, Denis Betts, Stephen Kearney.

CRONULLA SHARKS: The sun-bleached surf bums of the game, Cronulla have often in the past looked a little too anxious to get back to the beach. They play some glorious stuff under Australia coach-elect John Lang, but still their old, unpredictable selves at heart. Players to watch: David Peachey, Richard Barnett, Andrew Ettingshausen, Tawera Nikau.

HUNTER MARINERS: For a side thrown together at short notice, the second club in the league hotbed of Newcastle have made a decent hand of their first season. Graham Murray, a highly-regarded coach, is the big reason for that. Players to watch: Robbie Ross, Noel Goldthorpe, Brett Kimmorley, Tony Iro.

PENRITH PANTHERS: The Panthers went into rapid decline after their Premiership win in 1991, but have shown signs of getting their act together. Players to watch: Ryan Girdler, Steven Carter, Phil Adamson, Craig Gower.

PERTH REDS: Their future might be uncertain under the terms of any compromise between Super League and the ARL, but the Reds have been more competitive this year than at any time in their short history. Players to watch: Scott Wilson, Matthew Rodwell, Robbie Kearns, Peter Shiels.