Rugby League; Radlinski shoulders England hopes

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Rugby League


There has rarely been a better demonstration of the vast difference in depth in England and Australia than the two teams that line up for the opening game of the Halifax Centenary World Cup at Wembley today.

Australia, riven by internal revolt, can still field a side with few obvious weaknesses. England, with a few injuries at the wrong time, are reduced to fielding several players for whom fingers will be firmly crossed this afternoon.

Fortunately, the one with the weightiest responsibility on his shoulders appears ideally equipped to take it all in his stride. At 19, Kris Radlinski has not yet learnt the meaning of nerves and self-doubt. With him at full- back and Gary Connolly and Martin Offiah fit, it would be possible to be quite sanguine about English chances. Without those two, the backs look distinctly threadbare.

Barrie-Jon Mather has benefited from a summer with the Western Reds in Perth, but the defensive combination that he must strike up with his fellow centre, Paul Newlove, is likely to be severely tested. While John Bentley is as strong and willing as any winger, he is no Offiah in the match-winning stakes.

England must probe for weaknesses out wide in the Australia side and may fancy their chances of finding them in the wing-centre partnership of John Hopoate and Terry Hill. Both are damaging runners, but they are also inclined to blow the occasional fuse and do something crazy. It has to be said, however, that Bentley falls into the same category.

The vast majority of Australia's play will be channelled through their captain, Brad Fittler, while England will look to Shaun Edwards to impose a pattern of play that the Aussies will find uncomfortable. Short kicks over the defence and darting runs with back-row forwards chiming in at different angles are the best hope.

There will be anxious eyes on Karl Harrison as the game wears on today. There is no more honest prop forward, but his ability to get back 10 metres after every tackle throughout the 80 minutes has to be subject to some doubt. Chris Joynt will be available as a replacement in the second half, but England badly need a full match - and one of his very best - from the other prop, Andy Platt.

The England coach, Phil Larder, has been wise to leave Andy Farrell in his club position of loose forward, where his full array of skills - not least his kicking game - can find their fullest expression. Farrell is one of six Wigan players in the England 17 - rather below their usual complement - but still a backbone that the Australian coach, Bob Fulton, regards as an advantage for the English side.

Fulton, whose role as the ARL's chief protagonist in their struggle against the Super League is never far from the surface, has described Wigan as Britain's only Super League team and the way they have dominated so far this season bears out his case.

For Larder, however, this is a long way from being an unmixed blessing. He cannot say it too loudly, for fear of being accused of having his alibis ready in advance, but stomping all over vastly inferior teams in domestic rugby is no preparation for internationals.

The equivalent in Australia's team is the six-man representation from Fulton's Manly side. The difference is that they, despite a successful season that took them to within one match of the Winfield Cup, rarely had an unchallenging match.

One of the aspects of rugby league that is often taken for granted could be a major factor today. The play-the-ball is the equivalent of the serve in tennis - if that goes wrong, nothing else can be right - and the quality of service from the two hookers will be crucial.

A respectable crowd of around 35,000 - swelled by Diana Ross's entourage - would get the World Cup off to an encouraging start. A good contest between the favourites to make it to the final in three weeks' time will give it the momentum it needs. The show starts when the thin lady sings.

Powell on the prowl, Clarke's ambition, page 24