RUGBY LEAGUE: High drama hardens Grimaldi to leading role

SINCE HE returned from England to his old club, Tony Grimaldi has known little but drama.

The former Gateshead and Hull forward, who will captain the Canterbury Bulldogs in their World Club Challenge against Leeds Rhinos at Elland Road tonight, rejoined them three years ago, since when they have rarely failed to be embroiled in controversy.

First there was the salary cap scandal, which reduced them from first in the table to last as they were docked almost all their competition points as their punishment for cheating on their player payments.

Even more notorious was the Coffs Harbour affair, where several players were accused of sexual assault on a pre-season trip. In the end, no one was charged, but the bad odour has lingered and the Bulldogs' Grand Final win last year was not a popular one with everybody.

Just for good measure, the club's supporters have been branded as out of control. They are not everyone's idea of perfect ambassadors.

"There's certainly been plenty of drama since I came back," says Grimaldi with some understatement. "But when you're under siege like that you have to become a very tight unit. You're forced to be very close to each other. A lot of people think that's what made the difference in the Grand Final."

Canterbury face problems of a different sort in their bid to become the code's world champions. They have six regulars out recovering from operations in the close season and that dearth of experience has seen Grimaldi, at 30 the senior man in the side, elevated to the captaincy for the first time.

It is a task for which his three years in England have helped him prepare.

Grimaldi signed for the newly formed Gateshead Thunder in 1999 and, when they decamped to Humberside the following year, played two more seasons with Hull.

"It probably did me good as a player, because I ended up playing 90 games in three seasons and a lot of 80-minute stints, whereas in Australia I didn't get a huge amount of game time. I also had to go to England to play with great Australian players like Kerrod Walters and Jason Smith."

Another with strong British links who has seen it all from the inside is Bradley Clyde.

Clyde, who had an injury- ravaged season with Leeds at the end of his playing career, had the unenviable role of media manager at the Bulldogs when the Coffs Harbour allegations broke. "It was exactly like being under siege, but it rather put a full- stop under it when we won the competition. It hasn't been mentioned too much since."

Clyde, now the Canterbury football manager, is not surprised that it is a Leeds side with a strong base of young, local players that is awaiting them as Super League title holders.

"I could see it building," he says. "Some of these youngsters were starting to train with us and you could see what good players they were going to be."

Clyde was almost pressed into service again for this game, but Trent Cutler has recovered from what appeared to be a deep-vein thrombosis on the flight to England and will play. So will Leeds' Danny McGuire, despite a groin scare, although they will be without Matt Diskin for the opening weeks of the season following a knee operation.

It will be a big night for Gareth Ellis, who could mark his competitive debut for Leeds by becoming a world champion. Both he and his new team- mates, however, will be wary of the Bulldogs' well-earned reputation for resilience.

Wakefield have signed the former Wigan and Widnes stand-off, Julian O'Neill, on a two-year contract. O'Neill has been playing rugby union with Pau in France.