Rugby League: Sailor's tale of the times for Wigan

Dave Hadfield argues that a farcical week says much about the state of rugby league
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The Independent Online
IT HAS been one of those weeks when rugby league has not known whether it is coming or going, with neither arrivals nor departures turning out to be quite what they seemed.

It was the week when Wendell Sailor dropped anchor in Wigan. Or did he? And when Maurice Lindsay bowed out at League HQ, only to bow back in with Super League. Or not, as the case may be. What on earth is anyone watching from outside to make of it all?

On the face of it, Wigan's capture of Sailor - arguably the most exciting and charismatic player in the world - was a moment of significance both for the club and for the British game. When the new regime took over at Central Park last autumn, the recently installed directors, Mike Nolan and John Martin, surveyed the evidence of decline and told each other: "What we need is a Wendell Sailor."

If they want to show their public that they can recapture the swashbuckling era at Wigan over which Lindsay presided, then they are right. There have been great Australian players at the club in the recent past, but you have to go a long way back in history for a time when an Australian star of Sailor's magnitude committed himself full-time to any English club in a whilst in his prime.

But nothing this week could be as simple as it seems. The Brisbane Broncos not only have Sailor under contract for 1998, they also have an option on him for 1999, which they intend to invoke. Sailor, promised pounds 500,000 for a two-year deal at Wigan, will do his best to get out of his impasse. If he fails, there is egg-on-face potential in what should have been a triumphant moment for a resurgent club. Even the inspired plan of bringing the former player Phil Clarke back this week as chief executive was slightly complicated by the fact that Wigan already had a chief executive. Now that is on its way to being resolved, however, Clarke - positively fizzing with ideas on how the club can be made more professional and successful - has much to offer.

As with the finance for the Sailor deal, it is the Wigan Athletic chairman, Dave Whelan, who set up Clarke's return, and if this week has done nothing else, it has demolished any pretence that Whelan is not the power behind the scenes at Central Park.

It is richly ironic that all this should have happened days before Lindsay, the man still most closely associated with Wigan's rise and rise during the Eighties, was unceremoniously ushered out of the door at Rugby League headquarters. After five years as chief executive - of which the last was easily the most accident-prone - his time was up. But reports of Lindsay's demise were greatly exaggerated; he had seen it coming and had already prepared his escape route into Super League.

So back into Red Hall he comes, through the back door this time, into an office rented by Super League. With all the doors opening and closing, Brian Rix would have dismissed it as being too far-fetched for farce, but that is the situation in which we are asked to believe that the RFL and Super League can co-exist.

Lindsay's successor - at least for a three month trial period - is the thoughtful and self-effacing Neil Tunnicliffe, who hopes that the relationship between the two bodies can evolve into something similar to that between the FA and the Premiership. The difference is that the FA did not once kick out the man who now heads the Premiership, only to see him return as a lodger.

Aficionados of fireworks and fast, fancy footwork will miss Lindsay, but Tunnicliffe has something different - a strategic brain and a passion for detail. He and the game will need those qualities - not to mention the wisdom of Solomon - over the next three months.