Rugby League: Star pupils' chance to shine

The Independent-sponsored Student World Cup is taking the game to a new generation
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The Independent Online
THE STUDENT Rugby League World Cup, which will be contested for the fifth time in the British Isles and France this October, has been of such benefit to the game and its profile that it would have been a major disappointment for it not to have taken place.

Such is the expense of bringing over teams from as far afield as Japan and Papua New Guinea, as well as from New Zealand and Australia, however, that that was a possibility.

"Without the Independent, it is doubtful whether the competition would have been able to proceed," said the chief executive of the Rugby Football League, Neil Tunnicliffe, at the launch of the tournament in Hull yesterday.

This newspaper has committed itself to a competition which has produced a steadily improving standard of play since it was first staged in New Zealand in 1986 and one which has done much to give the game a strong foothold in institutions where it was once unknown.

"It was in the Student World Cup that the four home nations first competed as separate entities and it is vital to our ambitions to become a truly national game," Tunnicliffe said.

In terms of geographical spread, this autumn's tournament is the most ambitious so far. Group games will be played in Ireland, both north and south, Scotland and Wales, before rugby league "comes home", as it were, for the latter stages.

"We are trying to take the group games to new areas for rugby league and then later on concentrate on the heartlands," said Niel Wood, the director of the Student Rugby League and of the tournament.

One of those heartlands, the city of Hull, will host the final at The Boulevard on 17 October and, with the teams based in the city from the semi-final stage onwards, will have the World Cup as a centrepiece of its 700th anniversary celebrations.

The players from the 12 nations taking part will be attached to local schools, which will also play in their own competition. With teams that do not win their groups going into bowl and plate competitions, all the countries will be involved throughout the fortnight of the tournament, making it a unique festival of rugby league.

There is one similarity between it and the Word Cup for the game's leading professional players, which will be played here a year later; Australia will start as clear favourites. Winners of the 1996 final against Western Samoa at Salford and holders for the last three gatherings at student level, they have what their coach, Mike Loftus, describes as a "much stronger" squad than last time.

That will have other countries thinking long and hard about their prospects of competing successfully. Apart from the highly experienced John Driscoll, the Australians have a number of players from the Queensland State League and some who have played reserve grade for Sydney-based clubs in the National Rugby League.

New Zealand are traditionally strong at student level and will bring a number of players with high quality club experience, while Papua New Guinea, provided they can stand the cold, are the potential dark horses in their first visit to Europe at student level.

France were perhaps the most stylish of the teams in the 1996 World Cup, whilst countries like Japan, the United States, South Africa and Russia have deepened their experience of the game considerably since their last outings.

Of the four home nations, England are the only ones to start well fancied to win their group, but Scotland and Wales have home advantage at that stage in their favour and, in Brian Carney, the Irish have a player capable of being the personality of the tournament.

Steadily establishing his reputation with Gateshead in Super League, Carney is particularly looking forward to playing against Australia in his home city of Dublin. "It will be good to be playing against Australians rather than with them all the time," he said. "The Australians at Gateshead know quite a few of the players who are coming out with the students so they have given me an idea of what the standard will be like."

Past experience suggests that the standard will be high and rising. Apart from being an attraction to the sort of fans who have flocked in the past to events like the Emerging Nations World Cup, it continues the process of winning allies in areas where rugby league has traditionally had few.

There have already been several generations of students in Britain and beyond who have had the incentive of a World Cup to help lure them to rugby league. "And we are now starting to get the benefits of friends in high places who were introduced to the game through student rugby league," Tunnicliffe said.

FIVE TO WATCH

MARK SIBSON

England

The full-back from Loughborough University has established himself in Bramley's team in the Northern Ford Premiership this season. Originally played at primary school under the present Sheffield and England coach, John Kear, and resumed at university, where he has just finished an engineering degree.

JOE DAVIES

Wales

A strong-running, hard-hitting prop forward, Davies enrolled at the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff so that he could play rugby league. Has also made first-team appearances for Bramley this season as their coach, Mike Ford, has explored the potential of the student ranks.

BRIAN CARNEY

Ireland

Still qualifies after finishing his business management course at University College, Dublin, last year. The last 12 months have seen the former Gaelic footballer, represent his country in full internationals and play for Gateshead in Super League. Fast, aggressive winger, who has increased his bulk considerably since becoming a professional.

JOHN DRISCOLL

Australia

Probably the highest-profile player in the tournament, Driscoll has played hooker in first grade for the Brisbane Broncos, the strongest club side in the world over the last few years. A student at the University of Central Queensland in Rockhampton, he is out of contract with Brisbane at the end of the season and the Student World Cup is his shop window.

ROBERT ILYASOV

Russia

An exciting full-back who was a close to unanimous choice as the participating coaches' man of the tournament in 1996, Ilyasov is back for his second World Cup as a much more experienced player.

In the first phase, teams are divided into four groups of three: France, Russia and Japan (based in France); Wales, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (based in Wales); Ireland, Australia and the United States (based in Ireland); and Scotland, South Africa and England (based in Scotland). The winning team of each group then advances to the World Cup semi- finals, the second-placed team to the World Bowl semi-finals and the third-placed team to the World Plate semi-finals.

FIRST PHASE

3 October: Ireland v United States (at Malone, Belfast); Wales v Papua New Guinea (at Glamorgan Wanderers); Scotland v South Africa (at Hillhead, Glasgow); Russia v Japan (at Paris).

5 October: France v Russia (at Paris).

6 October: United States v Australia (at Malone); New Zealand v Papua New Guinea (at Glamorgan Wanderers); England v South Africa (at Whitecraigs, Glasgow).

8 October: France v Japan (at Paris).

9 October: Ireland v Australia (at Blackrock, Dublin).

10 October: Scotland v England (at Hillhead); Wales v New Zealand (at Glamorgan Wanderers).

KNOCK-OUT STAGES

13 October: World Cup semi-finals (at Hull and Warrington). World Bowl semi-finals: (at Heworth and Loch Lane). World Plate semi-finals: (at Featherstone and Keighley).

16 October: World Plate: Play-off (at Batley). Final (at Castleford).

World Bowl: Play-off (at Keighley). Final (at Wakefield).

17 October: World Cup: Final and play-off (at Hull).

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