Rugby League: Match-fixing scandal casts a shadow: Grand Final week in Australia is being marred by rumours of corruption. Dave Hadfield reports

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IT IS THE biggest week of the year in Australian rugby league, with the Grand Final on Sunday afternoon to be followed that evening by the naming of the Kangaroo squad to tour Britain.

For once, however, the usual cycle of events is being overshadowed by a police investigation into corruption which would go to the heart of the game's credibility.

The allegation is that four South Sydney players backed themselves heavily to lose a match against Western Suburbs last month, a match which Souths did indeed lose 34-26, after leading 16-4.

Two of the players whose names figure in the rumours - Darrell Trindall, who was briefly with Sheffield Eagles at the start of this season, and John Elias - have spoken out to deny any involvement.

There are suggestions that at least one player at another club was tipped off in order to enable him to get bets placed, and the Sydney police say that 'a number of players at a number of clubs' are under investigation.

Coming on the heels of the far less serious matter of a leak leading to a betting coup on David Fairleigh, a certainty for the tour squad this weekend, winning the game's biggest individual award, the Rothmans Medal, the latest scandal is enough to rock the game like a head-on tackle.

Fuel has been added to the fire by Benny Elias - no relation to John - who has revealed that he was approached to throw a match this season.

It is not the first time that would-be match fixers have made a bee-line for Elias. In his book Balmain Benny, he recalls receiving three calls offering him large amounts of money to throw the 1988 Grand Final.

There are those in Sydney who believe that the mysterious caller had more luck with an approach to another player that year, just as there are persistent suspicions that there was something fishy about the 1952 Grand Final and the whole of the 1978 Finals series, both of which hung upon refereeing errors.

I was in the camp which dismissed the 1978 allegations as paranoia, until one of the principals allegedly involved was caught fiddling an in-house tipping competition, yielding a few dollars as opposed to the hundreds of thousands that a bent Premiership would have been worth.

Since then, I have reluctantly concluded that if a system can be exploited, or 'rorted' as they would term it, then some Australian somewhere is working on the way to do it.

Sydney is the betting capital of the southern hemisphere and rugby league is overwhelmingly its most popular sport. It would be surprising, therefore, if gambling on the game was limited to the relatively innocent level of the official Footytab.

There will inevitably be big money riding on single matches, rather than on Footytab's unfixable eight-match card, and big temptation available to the unscrupulous.

The game's authorities say that there is only rumour and innuendo, but it will take more than a 'not proven' verdict from the investigation to clear the air.

Meanwhile, the show goes on, and the odds must be on Canterbury beating the Canberra Raiders to win the Winfield Cup on Sunday.

Canberra have been the most spectacular side of the season, and they will have players of the quality of the Australian captain Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, Ricky Stuart, Steve Walters, Bradley Clyde and the dazzling new full- back, Brett Mullins, in the tour party when it is named a few hours later.

But the Raiders, for all their undoubted star quality, look too tired and are carrying too many injuries to approach the Grand Final with any great confidence.

Consistent Canterbury could mimic Warwickshire in English county cricket by proving themselves the best side in the land and still failing to win any significant representation on tour.

That is partly due to the way New Zealanders, including the former St Helens centre, Jarrod McCracken, and Salford's new recruit, Jason Williams, dominate their back line.

It is also an indication that they rely on excellent teamwork rather than individual brilliance for their success. Only their second- row forward, Dean Pay, has a good chance of making the trip to Europe with the Kangaroos.

Even without much input from the Premiership favourites, however, the party of 28 will display even more depth of ability than on the last tour in 1990.

On the evidence of Winfield Cup matches this season, that is one safe bet that needs no rort to help it along.