Rugby League: Sink or swim for the condemned Hunter Mariners

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The Independent Online
The Hunter Mariners bring a whole new dimension to the concept of sudden-death rugby at Wigan tonight. Regardless of what happens in the World Club Championship, the Mariners are doomed after one season by circumstances beyond their control. When they return home, they will be pronounced extinct - sacrificed, like the Perth Reds this week, to the need for a unified, 20-team competition for next season.

An already hopeless position was underlined by their neighbours, the Newcastle Knights, winning the Australian Rugby League's Grand Final last weekend. There is only room for one club in the city under any compromise between the ARL and Super League, so Hunter are preparing for a match knowing that, if they lose, it will be their last.

"It makes it pretty difficult, but we are just trying to concentrate on the football," said their coach, Graham Murray, at Wigan yesterday. "If they weren't such a close-knit bunch of blokes it could have become a bit frayed. As it is, we make a lot of jokes about the situation."

Despite the death sentence hanging over them, the Wigan coach, Eric Hughes, regards the Mariners as especially dangerous. "If you are saying to a gang of players who have gelled together that it could be their last match, it's got to be a big motivating factor," he said.

Uncertainty over the future is eased to some extent by the fact that Murray and his players all have Super League contracts which will see them playing somewhere next year.

"One thing about the organisation is that they do look after you," Murray said. "We would prefer to stick together as a team, but it looks as though that won't be possible."

A compromise in Australia - much more on the ARL's terms than once seemed possible - has also moved nearer with a court ruling which has largely upheld the ARL's loyalty contracts with players.

In Europe, too, a realignment of clubs is on the agenda. Clubs this week discussed the possibility of Paris being transferred lock, stock and barrel to another city, with Edinburgh emerging as the likeliest location.

Oldham's players say that they are going to demand to be released from their contracts and treated as free agents if the relegated and broke club does not pay them the wages they are owed.

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