Rugby League: When the aeroplane comes in

A batch of Australian imports are now in place for Gateshead's Super League debut.

IT WAS not so much a case of when the boat comes in as when the plane puts down for the North-east's youngest sporting franchise.

Gateshead Thunder's first batch of players from Australia, their assorted wives, children and girlfriends, flew into Newcastle Airport yesterday to start preparing for the newly born club's first season in Super League.

"I'm starting to feel like we've got a team now," said Gateshead's chief executive, Shane Richardson, as he watched the new arrivals assemble at the club's base at Blaydon's rugby union ground. "They look like they could play a game now."

That will not be required of this first rumble of the Thunder from Down Under until the Super League season kicks off at the start of March, but the process of team bonding has already begun - in mid-air, as the party of 27 players and dependents travelled from Sydney, via Singapore and Amsterdam, to Tyneside.

"We left on Monday night after the holiday weekend and we've been getting to know each other on the flight," said Ben Sammut, a 23-year-old full- back or hooker whose only previous visit to England was to play for Cronulla in the World Club Championship 18 months ago.

"A lot of us hadn't met each other before, so this has been a good start for us.We're all up for it and looking forward to it as an adventure, especially as we're launching a new club.

"I've known Shane for a long time and the calibre of player he was talking about bringing here was a huge attraction. Looking around, he's been as good as his word.

"The fact that we're all Australian could possibly count against us with the local people. It's up to us to go out and win some football matches and make ourselves part of the community that way. Everybody likes winners."

Training to be winners starts in earnest on Monday, after a second tranche of players flies in from Australia to join their fellow-countrymen and a sprinkling of home-based players, including - in what sounds like a music hall joke - an Irishman, a Welshman and a Geordie.

Another of the driving forces behind the new club, Kath Hetherington, makes no apologies for launching the side with such a strong Australian content.

"Sport in this country has been so badly neglected that if you were starting up in any sport at professional level you would have to look overseas," she said.

The Thunder, particularly Richardson, an experienced administrator Down Under have certainly searched hard and productively in Australia, with the South Sydney scrum-half, Willie Peters, perhaps their most startling acquisition.

Peters has been tipped as a future Australian Test half-back, which makes it all the more remarkable that he should have uprooted at the age of 19 to play for a new franchise in an unknown environment. "People have said things like that about me, but you can go out the next week, have a bad game and it means nothing," he said. "I'm just excited by the opportunity to come somewhere new, start from fresh and try to make myself a name here."

Players crossing the world in either direction can find themselves left to their own devices; but not Gateshead's first plane-load.

Rather than let them slip quietly into the country, the Thunder turned their arrival into a promotional event, introducing them to the national and the particularly vital regional media, before packing them off in their club Rovers to their club houses, clustered near each other in an attempt to avoid any problems of isolation.

"If they settle in well, we'll succeed. If not, we won't," is the way Richardson sees it. Their base in Blaydon will be an important part of creating a sense of purpose and unity off the field. The North Two rugby union club, with a swanky new clubhouse and training facilities, both of which it needs to have used, has volunteered itself as a home from home for the new club.

"We don't see them as rivals; we see them as as a complementary sport," said their chairman, Peter Stokoe. "There is bound to be some cross-fertilisation, some mutual benefit. "We tried to build up a similar relationship with the Newcastle Falcons, but they weren't very interested and it turned out to be all one way."

The Falcons have pulled back from their grand ambitions south of the Tyne, but Stokoe, despite his rugby union background, is sanguine about the Thunder succeeding where they failed. "With all due respect to what Newcastle tried to do, these are professional people," he said as Richardson, Hetherington and their coach, Shaun McRae, got their newcomers organised. "That's the difference."

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