Rugby League: Thunder rumble north of border

Dave Hadfield says Gateshead are looking to stir long-term interest
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The Independent Online
GATESHEAD TODAY take their determined bid for a top-five place into another country that could be considered their own backyard. Until the distant day ever dawns when Scotland has its own Super League team, Gateshead are its local club and the Thunder will be hoping to stir some long-term interest when they play Wigan at Tynecastle in Edinburgh this afternoon.

"We're hoping to pick up a few potential fans who might be willing to make the trip down the A1," says Shaun McRae, the Gateshead coach, who is also in charge of Scotland's fledgling international team. Scotland also figures in the club's plans as a possible source of players, with the dual international, Alan Tait, keeping an eye open on their behalf for raw material that might make it, as he did, in league. "We're only just over the border and that might just make a difference in deciding which club to join," McRae says.

The main factor driving the Thunder to Edinburgh today, however, is necessity. One of the disadvantages of the Gateshead International Stadium is that it has some long-standing bookings; it is the province of veteran athletes all this weekend. That is a blow for Gateshead, in that they lose one of their better crowds of the season and also give up a measure of home advantage against the team two places above them in the table.

"Our only advantage is that Wigan have to travel a bit further," says McRae. "It won't be a normal home game for us, but our players can adapt to just about anything."

Having relocated from the other side of the world, an extra hundred miles or so makes little difference to Gateshead's Australians. They also go to Edinburgh with the psychological boost of having opened a gap, for the first time this season, between themselves and Castleford in the struggle for fifth spot, thanks to Cas's defeat at Bradford last Sunday.

"I thought Cas played really well, but that result has given us something to defend, rather than trying to stick with them, and it's an extra incentive for this week," McRae says.

Gateshead performed creditably in a 16-13 defeat at Central Park in May, one of the matches that confirmed them as genuine play-off contenders. "We thought we were pretty unlucky not to get anything out of that game, but we will have to play a lot smarter than that this time, because Wigan have improved a lot since then. We know their capabilities. You only have to look at their bench and the players who can't make the 17 to see how strong they are."

McRae's own smaller squad has gelled together admirably, with the half- back combination of Will Robinson and Willie Peters emerging as one of the best in Super League. "It's a good blend of youth and experience," he says. "Will has been a first-grade player for almost 10 years and has all that experience and know how, while Willie is a real talent. I was a bit worried at the start of the season about our kicking game but, between them, they've looked after that."

McRae also takes two players with Scottish qualifications on the road, in the prop forward Danny McAllister and the full-back Ben Sammut. But he cannot expect his own Scottish heritage to be much of an advantage. Although his grandfather emigrated from the far north-west to Sydney -"Stole a loaf of bread," says McRae - he made his own first visit to the country on Monday.