RUGBY LEAGUE: Renouf's holiday debut at Wigan's new home

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The Independent Online
BOXING DAY will have a strange, double meaning this year, with the lingering tradition of Bank Holiday showpieces between Super League clubs mingling with the early start to the Northern Ford Premiership season.

So-called friendly it might be, but any match between Wigan and St Helens - especially the first at Wigan's new stadium - still deserves to top the bill.

Significantly, Wigan will have a bigger crowd than for most of their Super League fixtures last season. That is despite being without their coach, Frank Endacott, who has still to receive his work permit, the injured Gary Connolly and Tony Smith, plus new players like Brett Dallas and Brady Malam, who have still to arrive.

There is the promise, however, of the player Wigan hope will be their drawcard for the new Millennium - the Australian Test centre Steve Renouf - playing part of the game against Saints, whose shareholders have agreed to an pounds 11m plan for a new stadium of their own.

"He hasn't played for several months, but he has a great attitude and is really keen to get started," said Wigan's rugby executive, Dean Bell, who has been looking after the team in Endacott's absence. "We will probably introduce him towards the end of the first half."

One of Ellery Hanley's many talents is his unfailing ability to always say the most unhelpful thing. At the BBC's Sports Review of the Year the other day, he made it quite clear that, if they wanted someone to bull up the 2000 World Cup, they had come to the wrong man, because he was only concerned about St Helens.

By the same token, he promoted the match this week by admitting that he would rather not be playing it. He will not be rushing any of the players recuperating from injuries and operations back into action, but newcomers Darrell Trindall and Bryan Henare will make a first appearance.

So will Paul Bell and David Barnhill for Leeds against Bradford, who have their own new imports in Justin Brooker and Hudson Smith.

Castleford do not have their Australian contingent - including their coach, Stuart Raper - in the country for their derby against Wakefield Trinity, but give a mixed bag of triallists - Jamie Benn and Richard Goddard, both returning from York, and Carl Briggs from Salford - a chance to impress.

And so to the serious business; positively grim business for some NFP clubs if the partial shift back to a winter season does not flush some of their missing supporters out of their hiding places.

Boxing Day will not be a fair test, because deceptively good crowds will be guaranteed for fixtures like the one that takes last year's winners, Dewsbury, to neighbouring Batley, and Widnes to Leigh, who have agreed an improved contract with their full-back, Stuart Donlan, a nominee for NFP player of the Year last season.

One of the more intriguing starts to the season will be that made by Doncaster, who are at York. Only recently re-instated as full members of the Rugby League after upheavals that seemed certain to finally put them out of business, the Dragons - as they now call themselves - have been recruiting even more energetically than Wigan. An odd opening day, indeed.