Rugby League: Johnson heralds new Wigan era

Dave Hadfield says the future is bright for Super League's standard- bearers
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IT IS a mark of the rapid impact made by Paul Johnson over the last few weeks that his was one of the first names on the team-sheet for Wigan's final Super League game of the season at Warrington today.

When the 19-year-old from Hindley, just down the road from Central Park, came into the side a month ago, it was widely assumed that he was merely keeping a place in the centres warm for the experienced Danny Moore.

But, now that the Australian is fit again after a knee injury, he faces, at the very least, a wait for his spot in the first-choice line-up. He could come on to the wing if Jason Robinson is moved to scrum-half for the injured Tony Smith; but the berth alongside Gary Connolly in the centres is unquestionably now Johnson's.

His two tries against Bradford last week pushed Johnson into the spotlight for the first time. "I just hope I've done enough to hold down a regular place and keep Danny out," he said.

The temptation to use Moore, a veteran of so much play-off rugby in Australia, will be strong over the coming month, but the young upstart will not give up his position without a fight.

"His form has made us pick him," said his coach, John Monie. "He is playing very well, he has defended very strongly and he is just doing a very good job for us."

Johnson is already being tipped as a future Great Britain centre, but he is not the only young player at Wigan to have caught the eye this season.

Lee Gilmour, who has signed a new contract this week which will take him all the way through to 2002, has already established his credentials. And two other novices, the highly promising second-rower Andy Isherwood and the great Billy Boston's grandson Wes Davies, could also be on the bench for Wigan at Wilderspool this afternoon.

For Warrington, it has been a far less happy season, but they too have unearthed talent that hints at a better campaign next time. Dave Highton and Will Cowell have both had the difficult task of coming into a struggling team recently, but both have shown great promise.

On top of that, Darryl Van de Velde has secured the futures of the players who have performed consistently well this season - the likes of Danny Farrar, Danny Nutley, Steve McCurrie and Lee Penny - and who could, along with the newly arrived Scott Wilson, form the nucleus of a better effort next time.

It is a time for taking stock at other clubs, as well. Nobody's season has been more disappointing, after their good work in 1997, than Salford's. They finish their dismal campaign at Bradford today, but they have already embarked on restructuring for next year.

They have already signed the Australian centre or stand-off, Garen Casey, from Wakefield Trinity and the word from Sydney is that three of his fellow- countrymen are lined up to join him.

The centre or full-back, Bobby Thompson, and the creative loose forward, Darren Brown, who as a young hopeful played for Trafford Borough, were both with Casey at Penrith, while Hudson Smith has been a regular in Balmain's first-grade squad.

Their impending arrival puts pressure on Salford's other overseas players, as there will be only one other place on the overseas quota. The indications are that Peter Edwards, Josh White and Lokenio Savelio could be on their way out.

Huddersfield, who wrap up their even more miserable season at Hull, have already decided to dispense with two of their Australians, Chris Orr and Jeff Wittenberg. With Malcolm Reilly taking over the coaching reins this winter, it is a fair bet that he will be bringing higher-profile imports with him.