Rugby League: Ngamu and Vagana ready to play David and Goliath

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF NEW ZEALAND need one of their own number to sum up the David and Goliath mentality they always take with them into rugby league Tests against Australia, they should look to Gene Ngamu. Unwanted in Auckland, he finished the season winning a Super League wooden spoon with Huddersfield; now he is part of a squad that can become unofficial world champions tomorrow.

"It was a bit of a shock getting a phone call from Frank Endacott, considering the season I'd had," he said as the Kiwis completed their preparation for the Tri-Series final yesterday. "I'd been back home for three weeks and I thought any chance of being involved had gone."

Instead, Ngamu was called up to cover the brilliant Paul brothers at half-back and the hooker, Richard Swain, and will undoubtedly play a role at the Ericsson Stadium. "I'll play anywhere for Frank. I'm just delighted to be part of a squad that can do such great things," he said.

If Ngamu is the surprise sling-shot specialist in the Kiwi squad, then Joe Vagana is its Goliath. Previously characterised as the biggest prop in the world game, he can now lay claim to being just about the best.

"I was pretty much labelled as an impact player," he said. "I get more game time now, but the interchange rule is still a good thing for the big fellows." They come no bigger than Vagana, whose battle alongside Craig Smith against the Aussie props, Rodney Howe and Darren Britt, could decide the balance of power. On current form, you would fancy the Kiwis.

In decisive games against Australia, though, opponents are playing against a winning habit that goes back to their last Test series defeat, in France in 1978. Even if this Australian side looks non-vintage in a couple of positions, that is a powerful heritage to overturn.

The other danger for the Kiwis is that the weight of expectation that is suddenly on their shoulders becomes a burden. Every conversation about the All Blacks' World Cup failure ends with the thought that the Kiwis can cheer up the country.

The cricket team have been losing in India; even the basketball side - known, inevitably, as the Tall Blacks - have been going badly. It's all up to Endacott and his boys.

"It's been mentioned all week, but we don't take too much on board about what's happened in other sports," said their captain, Richie Barnett. "At the same time, it would be really good for the game and for us individually if we could put rugby league up where it should be."

It is not quite the usual Aussie set-up they are facing. For one thing, they are staying not in a swish downtown hotel, like the Kiwis - nor, for that matter, the almost forgotten Brits - but in a humble establishment on the North Shore. The Australian Rugby League, which runs their Test side but not their domestic competition, is already broke and facing potentially ruinous legal action from clubs and was keen to keep the costs down. The team has been making a virtue of necessity and claiming that the relative lack of facilities has meant that they have spent more time bonding together - sentiments which sound more like the Kiwis.

Meanwhile, at the five-star end of town Andy Goodway has named a team for the curtain-raiser against the New Zealand Maoris which is designed to give a run to younger players and those who have played little part in the tour so far.

Thus, James Lowes starts as hooker and his Bradford team-mate Stuart Fielden is on the bench. The unlucky Paul Johnson misses out completely as he is still not fit, and there is no place for Great Britain's most experienced international, Denis Betts. It will be tricky to lift the players, but Goodway said: "I expect us to play to something like our potential this week, which the players know that they haven't done so far. They are at a loss to explain why that is, but quite a few of them need to start rebuilding their reputations."

They face a Maori side of mixed quality, but Goodway has warned them to expect a hard, physical battle. There is a long tradition of local sides catching British tourists with their minds already on home and sending them packing with another defeat; if that happens tomorrow it would make this the most depressing trip abroad Great Britain have ever experienced.

Goodway is already doomed as Great Britain coach, but tomorrow night will bring home to many in the party just how their status has fallen over the last three weeks. "I haven't played in a curtain-raiser since I was 13," said their captain, Andy Farrell. "Perhaps they'd let us be ball-boys as well." Fail to perform in this one and they might.