Rugby League: The short but amazing life of Hunter Mariners

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The Independent Online
How can a club with few friends and no prospects be 80 minutes away from being recognised as the best rugby league team in the world?

Dave Hadfield looks at the strange story of the Hunter Mariners, who meet Brisbane Broncos tomorrow in the final of the World Club Championship.

Millwall supporters used to boast, and probably still do, that "Nobody likes us. We don't care."

The case of the Hunter Mariners is subtly different. They have no supporters to speak of. Nobody wants them and they are positively thriving.

By rights, the club should have been quietly put to sleep by now, at the end of its first season. It was only set up by Super League as a spoiler on the turf of one of the Australian Rugby League's best-supported clubs, the Newcastle Knights.

The Mariners were a creation of war and they will be a casualty of peace, which could break out within the next few days.

The trouble is that the Mariners are clinging stubbornly to their life- line, extending their season by first qualifying for the quarter-finals of the World Club Championship and then by beating Wigan and Cronulla to reach tomorrow's final against the Brisbane Broncos in Auckland.

They have proved that they deserve to survive, but the most they can force is a stay of execution. One of the few things both sides of the battle in Australia have been agreed upon is that there should only be one team in Newcastle. And that will be the Knights, who won the ARL's Grand Final for the first time last month.

Ask the Hunter coach, Graham Murray, how his club can compete and he shrugs his shoulders and says: "They had 100,000 people at a ticker-tape parade. You can't argue with that."

Unlike the Knights, the Mariners are largely unloved in their home town. They are more likely to have bricks thrown through their office windows than ticker-tape rained on them.

Yet, somehow, from this hopeless situation, they have found strength and inspiration. Every match could be their last if they lost it - so they have responded by refusing to lose, thus grafting a compelling storyline on to the WCC. They might only have one season, but it is going to be one to remember.

Newcastle - the New South Wales one - might have miles of beach at the end of its main street and wine might have displaced coal as the major money-earner, but it is still a tough, working-class town that takes a fierce pride in its rugby league heritage.

Many of Australia's greatest players have come from the area, but until 1988 they generally had to move 100 miles down the coast to Sydney to make their names. So, when Newcastle got its own team in what was then the Winfield Cup almost a decade ago, it quickly went deep into the psyche of the place.

Having failed to persuade the Knights - and most particularly their former Great Britain coach, Malcolm Reilly - to defect, Super League poached as many administrators and players as they could and planted the Mariners on their patch. As a move aimed primarily at damaging the Knights, it was bitterly resented in the town.

To have fashioned a winning rugby team out of such unpromising circumstances is a remarkable achievement and speaks volumes for the abilities of Murray, the former Illawarra coach, who has proved their most important signing.

What he has had to work with is a handful of former Knights, like Brad Godden, Robbie McCormack and Paul Marquet, plus players who had signed for Super League and were not wanted elsewhere - like the Iro brothers, for instance.

The Mariners did not exactly sweep all before them - their WCC semi-final victory at Cronulla was their first away from home in Australia - but they beat all the big guns, Brisbane, Cronulla, and Canberra, on their own ground.

It is in the WCC, coinciding as it has with peace moves that herald their doom, that they have come good. "They can't kill us off while we're still playing," says McCormack, and it is that incentive that has kept them alive.

There could even be life after death, with the idea already mooted that the Mariners could be moved, more or less intact, to Wales, Scotland or Melbourne for next season. There would be a lot of sense in launching a new franchise on the back of the sort of spirit that the Mariners have shown over the past few weeks, but Melbourne already have a coach in Chris Anderson and not all the Hunter players would welcome relocation across the globe.

Tomorrow, therefore, is effectively their swan-song, win or lose: the end of a short but extraordinary life.

They will not go quietly; not with players like their young half-backs, Scott Hill and Brett Kimmorley, who have combined so magically of late. Nor with the New Zealand loose-forward, Tyran Smith, showing his true potential. Nor with a full-back of the calibre of Robbie Ross attacking from deep.

But, if Kevin Iro is absent with a groin strain, it will further weaken an already dicey goalkicking department - and they are up against the best club side in the world.

Even without Allan Langer, who is also almost certain to miss the Tests against Great Britain, the Broncos are packed with talent, starting with their dazzling full-back, Darren Lockyer, continuing through the world's best centre, Steve Renouf, and including forwards as destructive as Gorden Tallis.

The Mariners have no chance against that sort of fire-power. But they had no chance against Wigan or Cronulla either. Logic has little part in it when a team shouldn't even exist.