Rugby League: Wigan's hold seems secure: Rugby League's new season: Restructuring likely to create problems as the game's dominant force face a different challenge. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
THERE is an element of self-delusion in the air of anticipation that greets yet another restructuring of the Rugby League for the campaign that begins this weekend.

Any clubs which believe that shedding three of their weaker brethren and returning to two divisions is going to solve any of their problems are in for a bitterly disillusioning season.

There is a fixture crisis waiting to happen in an expanded, 16-team First Division. Not only will there be too many games, there will be too many in which the result is a foregone conclusion after the first few minutes. It is not a recipe for an improved standard of rugby, nor - unless clubs radically improve their own housekeeping - for greater financial security.

The problem of overloading will be compounded by a New Zealand tour which, in every other respect is something to be relished. The Kiwis hardly know how to play a dull Test and there is so little to choose between them and Great Britain that an intriguing contest seems guaranteed.

It would be pleasant to entertain such profound uncertainty about domestic competition, but there are few good reasons for imagining that the era of Wigan dominance is about to end.

Their chairman, Jack Robinson, likes to talk as though the club has once more done something unimaginably daring by shelling out for Gary Connolly and Nigel Wright. In fact, a club at the top of the heap had to sign either Connolly or Paul Newlove when they became available, in just the same way that Manchester United had to go after Roy Keane. The suspicion is that St Helens, Castleford, Leeds and Widnes are no better equipped than they were last time, when Wigan were widely regarded as vulnerable, and in some cases considerably less so.

Halifax and Newlove's new club, Bradford, both have appreciably stronger squads and with a good start they should emerge as the most dangerous opponents. Neither has a home ground that teams much enjoy visiting and one or both of them could make a genuine charge.

Warrington should gain some reward for their investment in Jonathan Davies, but clubs like the two on Humberside, Leigh, Wakefield and the promoted pair of Oldham and Featherstone face a season of struggle. The greatest consolation for them is that only two can go down.

In the Second Division, the two most fancied sides are Keighley and Workington. Both rebuilt intelligently in the now defunct Third Division, which surely says something in favour of the three-division system.

London Crusaders, with a new ground, a coach of stature and some interesting newcomers, naturally feel that it would be better for the game as a whole if First Division rugby could be restored to the capital.

Below the top two divisions, there will be much interest in the progress of the new National Conference League. Provided pointless arguments about how professional the relegated sides from last season's Third Division are permitted to be are avoided, the Conference has the potential to carry the game forward. It could even pave the way for rugby league to do what football did in 1974 by abolishing any distinction between amateur and professional and treating all participants simply as players.

Rugby league will go into the last year before its centenary with debate raging about how much help should be given to development in places such as South Africa, Morocco and the former Soviet Union.

The usual voices will insist that we should be looking after matters closer to home, when the truth is that for most of the last 98 years the game has been run by people whose horizons barely stretched to the next village, let alone the next continent.

The test of Maurice Lindsay's stewardship as chief executive will be how much progress can be made on both the domestic and the international fronts - not as mutually exclusive alternatives, but as different sides of the same coin.

(Photograph omitted)

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