Rugby League: Mestrov takes the challenge

Dave Hadfield talks to Wigan's new powerhouse meeting some old friends today
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WHEN Wigan and London Broncos meet in the semi-final of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup this afternoon, they will not merely be determining who goes to Wembley on the first Saturday in May.

They will also be fighting the first round at Huddersfield in a battle that could decide whether either of them can unseat Bradford Bulls as champions of Super League. British rugby league needs both of them - and preferably a couple of others - to come through as realistic contenders if the third season of the revamped summer game is to be a success.

Tony Mestrov sees the strengths of both clubs from a unique perspective. A Bronco for the last three seasons, he joined Wigan this winter and believes that both sides have what it takes to prevent any possibility of a one- horse race.

"I can't see there being as many one-sided matches this time," he says. "Wigan and London will be up there pushing Bradford, but so will St Helens and, I should think, Salford and Sheffield."

The game necessitates Mestrov to be right about the spread of ability this year, but it is surely his old club and his new who represent the the main challenge to the Bulls. He decided midway through last season that he needed to move. Although it was not reflected in statistics that mark him out as the most effective prop in the English game, he felt he was getting stale. "I felt I'd gone as far as I could there and I knew I wouldn't have given my best if I'd stayed there another season."

Manly tried to take him back to his original Australian club, but when Wigan started to nibble his mind was made up. "Knowing that John Monie was going to be coaching here was a big factor. He has the experience of having been there and having done everything and he's the best I've ever come across."

Mestrov has found a sudden, almost jarring cultural change from the virtual anonymity of being a rugby league player in London to the Wigan public's obsession with their club. "You have a real feeling of the whole place being behind you and of being in the heartland of the game. But it wasn't so much that as the chance to play with the Wigan side that drew me."

By Wigan's famously exalted standards, that side was rather an ordinary one last season and would not have finished as high as fourth in the Super League table had it not been for two genuinely world-class players in Jason Robinson and Andy Farrell.

This year, however, the combination of John Monie's expertise and Dave Whelan's money gives them their old, formidable look once more. Apart from Mestrov, there are three other highly experienced Australians in Mark Bell, Danny Moore and Robbie McCormack to address weaknesses in the team he inherited, as well as the hugely significant return of Denis Betts.

It is a moot point whether this season's line-up will do more damage to their opponents than to their own club's salary cap. The Wigan of a few years ago, with its unashamed agenda of world domination and sod the rest, is very much back in business. But they didn't quake in their boots down at The Stoop when London and Wigan came out of the hat together in the semi-final draw; they went out and celebrated.

Monie's assessment of the Broncos so far in their cup run is that they need to play a better side to bring the best out of them. On that, he and the London coach, Tony Currie, are agreed. "We were out for our usual 'Monday club' drink and when we heard the draw the reaction of the players was 'it's about time'," Currie said. The feeling was that Wigan were exactly what they needed.

"I'm fortunate in that sense that most of the side is Australian. They come from a hard school where you're only as good as your last performance and they aren't the least bit overawed by Wigan."

Among themselves, the Broncos have been positively cavalier in their view of the Wigan team. They had a chance to sign Bell and McCormack and decided not to pursue it. They have replaced Mestrov with two international props in Mark Carroll and Grant Young and see Betts and Monie as failures, as player and coach respectively, at the Auckland Warriors.

To say that they are up for it would be a wild understatement, but, like Wigan, they have yet to add up to the sum of their parts. "They have recruited well," says Mestrov, whose head-to-head with Carroll will not only be a highlight today but has the potential to be one of the more brutal running stories of the season. Although they played for the same two Sydney clubs, Manly and Souths, the timing of their movements meant that the two front- rowers were always opponents rather than team-mates.

"He's just another forward and it's just another game against another team to me," said Mestrov, the son of Croat immigrants to Sydney. "If I come in for a bit of extra attention, that's what I'm there for. I'll just go about my job."

That job is to help ensure that Wigan return to Wembley after their painful two year absence. London want it for different reasons; in order to grab the attention of a metropolis that is still all too willing to ignore them.

But, whichever way it goes at Huddersfield today, the rivalry between two very different clubs should be one of the plot-lines that makes a season that ends at Old Trafford in October a compelling one.