Rugby League: League stands at the crossroads: Dave Hadfield anticipates problems in a new rugby league season which starts this weekend

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The Independent Online
THE NEW season, which begins in earnest tomorrow, could be the one in which the game gets to grips with its problems, or the one during which it plunges into deeper trouble on two fronts.

It is not possible to feel unrestrained excitement over the outcome of contests between individual clubs while the sport is tearing itself apart in a quite unnecessary way between its amateur and professional ruling bodies over the control of youth rugby.

The origins of the conflict are so convoluted that neither warring party has a complete grasp of them, but the result is clear enough; the two sides are not talking but are doing everything possible to hurt each other.

One bizarre consequence is that the Regal Trophy, when the draw for its early rounds is made next month, will include two French clubs but no British amateurs.

The Rugby Football League's chief executive, David Oxley, says that there is work going on behind the scenes which gives him some hope for a resolution before he retires from the post in mid-season.

The probability is that it will take the intervention of some outside force to restore sanity. The Parliamentary Rugby League Group, or perhaps the active little caucus of Euro MPs who take an interest in the game, would seem ideally qualified; failing that, Lord Carrington is free.

The other cloud hanging over the game is more familiar in shape and character. Finances have always been problematic, but the indications are that clubs have worse cash difficulties than at any stage in the code's 97-year history. The combination of the recession and a misconceived - or at least grossly misapplied - system of contract payments has hit clubs hard.

Some, like Hull Kingston Rovers, have scrapped contract payments altogether. Even more startling is the way a club as pre-eminent as Wigan is reduced to the position of losing players it would like to keep because it cannot afford them. As the directors of Chorley or Barrow might say, welcome to the real world.

For all that, the League has so far lost only one club - the fundamentally unstable Scarborough Pirates - and there is much to look forward to on the field in the coming season.

If the World Cup final against Australia at Wembley on 24 August is not a sell-out, it will be for the want of trying, and in a single contest like this there is every prospect of Britain giving the domestic game a mighty boost by winning.

The domestic scene will again be dominated by Wigan, although the competition should be closer than for the last couple of years. The winners of the Championship, Premiership and Challenge Cup begin this campaign weaker on paper and run the risk of staleness after having so many players on tour.

Their main rivals - St Helens, Castleford, Leeds and Widnes - have all struck deals in the close-season which leave them, at this early and often misleading stage, looking better balanced than they were. If there is a dark horse, it could be Halifax.

In a test of depth and consistency like the Stones Bitter Championship, you would have to stick with Wigan, but it would be no surprise if the chasing group were to share out the cups between them.

In the Second Division, not even the loss of the estimable Deryck Fox should prevent Featherstone gaining promotion. Oldham are the likely choice to accompany them, but Peter Tunks' revolving-door policy at The Watersheddings makes it difficult to assess the capabilities of his squad.

The Third Division was the quiet success story of last season, with a clutch of West Yorkshire clubs attracting good crowds to their promotion tussles. The two who missed out, Dewsbury and Batley, start as favourites this time.

Right at the bottom, Nottingham City, who failed to win a game last time, have signed some useful players and will be considerably more competitive.

Wigan selling, Nottingham buying - the next thing you know our administrators will be acting like grown-ups.