Rugby League: St Helens first among Wigan's prospective peers: Dave Hadfield on the new rugby league season, kicking off with today's Charity Shield at Gateshead

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The Independent Online
THERE is the hint of a new spring in the stride of the pack of clubs which have been pursuing Wigan with increasing desperation over the last few seasons. The theory is that having had 14 players on tour this summer will take the edge off the champions in their quest for a fourth successive title.

The marathon slog of the next nine months will decide whether there is substance to the theory, but it has already brought the coach of one of Wigan's main rivals back for another crack at them. Castleford's Australian mentor, Darryl Van De Velde, admits that it was the summer workload inflicted on Wigan's squad which persuaded him to return to Yorkshire for a fifth season.

If they are ever going to be vulnerable, now is the time, he believes, and Castleford are one of a clutch of clubs lying in wait for any slip-ups. They have added the St George stand-off, Peter Coyne, to last season's squad and will once more be capable of beating the best on their day.

The pre-season odds, however, have Wigan's opponents in today's Charity Shield curtain-raiser to the season at Gateshead, St Helens, as the main threat.

Saints have sold their scrum-half, Paul Bishop, to Halifax; have bought the half-back-cum-hooker, Augustine O'Donnell, from Wigan; and are on the point of tying up the rumbustious Kiwi Test centre, Jarrod McCracken, on a short term contract that will keep him in England until the end of February.

With a side much closer to full strength than Wigan's today, Saints may well open the season with a morale-boosting win over a side that has inflicted so many humiliations on them in the last few years.

'But Wigan are one of the great sides in world rugby league, so they should probably start as favourites,' says Mike McClennan, another overseas coach lured back for one more tilt at the champions, his batteries recharged by an extended break in New Zealand. He is not convinced that the rather more strenuous summer experienced by the bulk of the Wigan team will be a crucial factor.

'It will affect different players at different times,' he says. 'But they have so much depth at Wigan. John Monie will recognise any staleness and he can then drop a player down for a spell and still be able to field a top-class replacement.

'I don't believe it will be the problem that some people think.' It is true, however, as Monie says, that the departure of Andy Gregory and Gene Miles and the absence, owing to a contract dispute, of Andy Platt make Wigan weaker on paper than they were last season. But so did the loss of Ellery Hanley and Kevin Iro a year ago, and the record shows how little that affected their performances.

Apart from St Helens and Castleford, the clubs that harbour ambitions - realistic or not - of toppling Wigan are Leeds and Widnes, both of whom will have to improve greatly on last season.

Both have also undergone upheavals during the summer. Widnes have gone outside the old boy network to appoint a new coach with a distinctive approach, Phil Larder, while Leeds have been responsible for breaking the log-jam in the transfer market with their comings and goings.

The significant newcomers at Headingley are Gregory, still a gifted half-back and now with a point to prove after Wigan's decision to let him go, the Test full- back and former Scottish centre, Alan Tait, the Bath and England B rugby union winger, Jim Fallon, and Warrington's New Zealander, Gary Mercer, who will add some much-needed pace to the pack. Neither the comings nor the goings are likely to be finished just yet.

All the chasing clubs must hope that a combination of injuries, staleness and absent stars will see Wigan drop a few early points. The champions have a record of starting slowly and it would not be out of character for them to struggle in their first league game at Sheffield next Friday.

A side with the potential to knock Wigan off their perch must cash in by beating them when they first meet. Those, by definition, are the big matches - and Wigan are a very different proposition as soon as they are on the agenda.

David Bishop, the Welsh half- back, is set to leave Hull Kingston Rovers as the club is scrapping the contract system for match fees. Bishop, transfer-listed, said: 'I can't see myself ever playing again for Rovers under those terms.'