Rugby League: Ropati raring to oust the holders: Dave Hadfield assesses a powerful New Zealander with a crucial second-round role to play at Central Park today

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The Independent Online
DESPITE the way his name is sometimes corrupted on the terraces, life with St Helens has been no tea party for the player whose performance at stand-off will be of pivotal importance to their chances of knocking the holders, Wigan, out of the Challenge Cup at Central Park today.

Tea Ropati struggled through his early days at Saints with a knee injury stubborn enough to suggest that he would never be a sound investment. It was not until last season that he truly demonstrated his fitness and quality; this season, he is, according to the votes of his fellow professionals, the outstanding player in the First Division.

'It has helped me having a long run in one position and playing outside Shane Cooper, who never gives you a bad pass,' he said. 'I've been working hard on my game, but I reckon I can get a good bit better. I'm quicker than I've been going so far.'

It is strength, rather than sheer speed, that is the immediately striking aspect of Ropati's game - the ability to throw off a tackler, to shrug off defenders and get the ball away from the most unlikely situations.

'That's something that I've always had naturally in my game. Perhaps it runs in the family.'

The strength and skill to excel in rugby league undeniably run through the Ropati clan in thick, lode-bearing seams. Tea is the middle brother of seven players, including Joe, who rampaged down the wing for New Zealand, Peter, a clever hooker who had several seasons at Leigh, and Iva, a prolific try- scorer in England for Featherstone, Sheffield and now Oldham. Five of the brothers once played in the same club side in Auckland, Mangere East, giving the ground announcer the feeling that the Ropati was going on for ever.

With the possible exception of the youngest brother, Romi, who, on his brothers' advice, is working his way through the ranks in rugby union before rejoining the family game, the consensus in the clan is that 27-year-old Tea is the most talented of the lot.

It has been hard to argue with that assessment this season. When Saints beat Wigan by an astonishing 41-6 on Boxing Day, the best defence in the league could do nothing with him as he broke tackles and set up tries with monotonous regularity.

The Wigan coach, John Monie, who leaves at the end of this season to begin preparing the Auckland Warriors for entry into Australia's top competition, the Winfield Cup, has seen enough of Ropati to rank him a main recruitment target.

'John has had a word with me,' Ropati said. 'I've got another season after this one with St Helens and I like it here. But it might be nice to be able to do what I do, but to do it back home.'

Today, the two potential allies will be pulling in opposite directions, however. Even ignoring the outrageous result of their last meeting, Ropati sees plenty of reasons to expect that he will be the one smiling at the end.

'I've been watching Wigan on TV and, while they are obviously still strong, I don't know if they are as strong as they were. They have had some tries scored against them that I don't think they would have let in last season.'

And, if Wigan have changed, so have St Helens, if not in their fundamentals then certainly in the way they carry it through. 'The difference is that we have more depth now if we lose players, and that, after three years of being coached by Mike McClennan, we have learnt the lessons he has been trying to get through to us,' he said.

'The atmosphere is different in the week before a game against Wigan. It changes our approach. but it's not something that anyone needs to be told about; you do it for yourself.

'We've been there or thereabouts with Wigan for some time. We are now ready to beat them for the major prizes.'

(Photograph omitted)