Rugby League: Wigan ready for a fresh start

Super League: New season opens with a whimper rather than a bang as Hull face up to harsh reality
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By Dave Hadfield

IF YOU were looking for evidence that Super League, for all its buoyant mood at the moment, still doesn't get everything right, you would be tempted to look no further than tonight's opening fixture.

Between them, Super League and Sky have chosen to showcase the delights ahead with an unbalanced match between a very good, if currently rather depressed side, and a very poor one. On top of that, it is to be played on a mud-heap. Welcome to the brave new world.

Hull could yet surprise everyone at Wigan tonight. Their captain, Karl Harrison, fresh from surprising everyone at Halifax last season, insists they will. But the likelihood of even a depleted Wigan side running - or perhaps swimming - riot shows what remains to be done before the competition's full potential is realised.

The Sheffield Eagles coach, John Kear, said yesterday that Super League will deserve to be counted as an unqualified success five years from now if the team running second can be beaten by the one next to bottom. Since that is roughly where Wigan and Hull are expected to finish this year, tonight is a good indicator.

"I know everyone is expecting us to just turn up and roll over," says Harrison. "But that's not the way we look at it. We see it as a really good challenge. And we're a big side; probably the worse the conditions are, the better it suits us."

Harrison's back injury makes him, along with another new signing, Matt Calland, a minor doubt for tonight. Wigan are without Simon Haughton, who has torn a hamstring in training, as well as Denis Betts and Tony Smith, but a churned-up Central Park surface could still be Hull's best ally.

With Wigan due to move out at the end of the summer, there is little incentive to spend money on the ground. Drains appear to be blocked, so a mis-match on a swamp is the image with which Super League IV will open.

It is a season that deserves a better kick-off - one in which Wigan's captain, Andy Farrell, knows that they face a formidable task if they are to hang on to the title they won at the inaugural Grand Final at Old Trafford last year.

They have already succumbed to the wrath of fierce rivals Leeds, their most serious challengers during the last season, in the Cup. "We were pissed off at the time, but we had no excuses, because Leeds were by far the better side on the day," Farrell says.

"It left us with a couple of weeks to sort our problems out and I feel we've done that."

It has not been the easiest of close seasons for Farrell himself. Already fuming at Great Britain's Test series defeat by New Zealand, he found that he needed an operation on the hip that hampered him through those matches.

The immediate build-up to the beginning of the new season has been dominated by the overdue arrival this week of his third child, Gracie. It has not been easy to concentrate on Hull.

"The first game of the season is always going to be a difficult one, because no side has got any form on the board," he says. "We've got a very hard start to the season and, after than Cup-tie at Leeds, we've only got the one remaining trophy to play for."

One thing that particular defeat showed up was the relative lack of depth in Wigan's squad this year. "But that's something that can work in our favour. When you've got a big squad, you've got players whinging at training. If we can keep healthy, we'll benefit from having the same squad playing together all the time.

"There are 30 games this time and it's how teams can cope with it mentally that will decide things. If you can get yourself up for every game, half the battle's won."

Wigan's ability to raise themselves even for games that everyone expects them to win gets its first test tonight. Harrison, bad back permitting, promises that Hull will meet their side of the bargain.

Apart from his own durability, Hull have four ex-Wigan players in their squad, in Craig Murdock, Steve Barrow, Stephen Holgate and Martin Hall.

Those players in particular will not want to contemplate humiliation on their old home ground on the opening night of the season.

"We're a long way from being at our best," says the Wigan coach, John Monie. "We'll settle for stumbling to a win."

For the sake of setting the right tone for 1999, Super League needs Hull to prevent that stumble becoming a cake-walk.