Rugby league: Town heads for the gates to a super future

Dave Hadfield looks at the chances of an enterprise in joining an elite league
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The Independent Online
THE birthplace of Gazza and the home of The Angel of the North could soon have another claim to fame. Gateshead could become one of the few areas of agreement between the Rugby League and Super League.

What these two often antagonistic bodies are instinctively agreed upon is that the town should have a club playing in the game's elite competition next season. Both organisations want it; Super League clubs - despite the possibility that it could cost them money - seem to want it; Gateshead Council wants it; even the population of a region that has traditionally only flocked to football has shown it wants it. All that remains is to deliver, but the track record of the two prime movers behind the enterprise suggests that they can do so.

Shane Richardson, like The Angel, is a larger-than-life figure, who has turned around two ailing clubs, Brisbane Easts and Cronulla, in his native Australia. When he was recruited by Cronulla, then massively in debt, he travelled down from Queensland by bus, because the club could not afford an air ticket. Such is his reputation now that it would have been no surprise to see him arrive in Gateshead this week by striding down the middle of the Tyne.

Although the town was little more than a name on a map to him a few weeks ago, if anyone can sell it the concept, he is the man. Kath Hetherington, "one tough lady" as Richardson describes her, brings something different to the mix. She knows all about the harsh reality of starting a club from scratch, because she and her husband Gary did just that at Sheffield. The difference is that Gateshead already has healthy rugby league grass roots, with a thriving local competition, as well as a vital presence in schools.

And when North-east audiences have been given the opportunity to watch live matches - two Charity Shields and four internationals - they have responded in numbers that Sheffield can still only dream about. Those six matches have averaged over 7,000 spectators.

The building of Sheffield has proved Kath Hetherington's credentials as a judge of players. Even when Gary was coach at the Eagles, it was her opinion he relied on - and players like Daryl Powell, Mark Aston and Paul Broadbent ,who were signed, without fees show that the talent is out there if you know how to identify and nurture it.

Richardson's Australian connections ensure that there will be high-profile imports confirmed when and if Gateshead get the go-ahead. Although he is playing his cards close to his chest, there would be no one better than the Cronulla captain, Andrew Ettingshausen, with whom to launch the venture. There is already a short-list of coaches who have been sounded out.

That leaves just the thorny question of finance. Gateshead are not looking for a single financier and figurehead like Sir John Hall. Their vision is that a wide range of North-east businesses and individuals will buy in. The number of inquiries so far is encouraging\.

What they have to do between now and August is to continue to build a strong enough case to prevent Super League clubs doing what they have done in the past by blocking newcomers in order to keep their own slice of the cake.

All the signs are that enough of them now see the wider picture and that Leeds, Wigan, Bradford and the rest will be welcoming the men from the North-east frontier next season.