Rugby League: Wigan have the class to wave banner

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The Independent Online
IT IS just as well that Australia run into Wigan today before their momentum becomes unstoppable. That is not to say that Wigan will necessarily stop them, but they should at least slow them down.

There have been worrying signs during the admittedly short time that the Australians have been in Britain that the gap between the two countries has widened once more.

The speed with which the Kangaroos are moving the ball and supporting each other is such that it recalls the remark of one spectator, back in the dark days of 1982, that he had got good value because he had seen two games for the price of one: 'One when they've got the ball and one when we have.'

Those of us who were in Australia this summer have been warning of this. Since we last saw them here, for the World Cup final in 1992, these players have had almost two years of playing with a rigorously enforced 10-metre offside rule at the play-the- ball.

The result of that extra space is that the rhythm of their game has gone up by one beat to the bar, and that our players need to play a completely different game from the one that suffices in domestic competition if they are to live with them.

We have been talking about closing the gap for more than a decade now and there have been times when it has seemed to disappear. But the evidence of this tour party is that we have now caught up with where they were, rather than where they are.

The Australian coach, Bob Fulton, was being over-generous, not to mention disingenuous, when he said that our top seven or eight sides could compete successfully in the Winfield Cup.

Wigan could, and Bradford on a good day; but the third-placed side in our league, as well as the second-best supported and second-most expensive, are Leeds and we saw on Wednesday night just how they fared amid the current tempo of the Australian game.

Wigan have as many brilliant players as Australia, but they do not face players or teams of comparable ability every week like their antipodean contemporaries. If Wigan could play Wigan regularly, we might have more than a bare Test team of truly world-class ability.

All the same, Wigan carry the British banner today with some grounds for encouragement. Not only did they beat the Brisbane Broncos, off-colour but stuffed with Test players, in June, they have also played admirably so far this season.

Shaun Edwards and Denis Betts have passed fitness tests and their coach, Graeme West, persists with an experiment he tried in the second half against Wakefield last week with Henry Paul at centre and Gary Connolly at full-back - something that will be of significance to Great Britain if anything goes wrong with Jonathan Davies' comeback.

Even more important is that Kelvin Skerrett, back after a fractured eye-socket and in direct opposition to the former Wigan prop, Ian Roberts, comes through safely.

Wigan: Connolly; Robinson, Paul, Tuigamala, Offiah; Botica, Edwards; Skerrett, Hall, Cowie, Betts, Farrell, Clarke. Substitutes: Atcheson, Cassidy, McDermott, O'Connor.

AUSTRALIA: Mullins (Canberra); Hancock (Brisbane), Meninga (Canberra), Renouf (Brisbane), Sailor (Brisbane); Daley (Canberra), Stuart (Canberra); Pay (Canterbury), S Walters (Canberra), Roberts (Manly), Sironen (Balmain), Clyde (Canberra), Fittler (Penrith). Substitutes: K Walters (Brisbane), Brasher (Balmain), Fairleigh (Norths), Furner (Canberra).

Referee: D Campbell (Widnes).