Rugby Union: Judgement season for code breakers

Dave Hadfield in Sydney looks at rugby league's power struggle Down Under
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The battle lines were drawn up last week for an infuriating, damaging and fascinating season in Australia. The courts have had their say and will not be major players in the drama again. What remains of the war will be fought out on the field by two rival competitions who both claim to have the best clubs and players. Ultimately it will be the supporters who decide.

Super League, stopped by the original court decision from starting its competition this year, is now gearing itself up for its delayed lift off. On Wednesday, the chief executive, John Ribot, unveiled the master plan. To call it ambitious would fail to do it justice. Players will find themselves having to work hard for their generous rewards, including, for some, as many as nine games against British clubs.

That is a key part of the Super League gameplan. The World Club Challenge might have started life as a one-off match between the British and Australian champions and then gone through a stage where it was envisaged as a relatively straightforward play-off between the top four from each country, but in 1997 it will be the most wide-ranging international initiative the code has ever attempted.

Clubs will criss-cross the globe as never before and, in England at least, there is enthusiasm over the prospect of extra games to swell revenue, especially as all expenses are underwritten from the Australian end. Super League are big on grandiose schemes. What they have to prove is that they can deliver - and not just for one symbolic season, but for long enough to make the World Club Challenge a permanent feature on the landscape.

At the moment, it is still easy for the Australian Rugby League's chairman, Ken Arthurson, to predict: "They will stuff up. Everything they have organised so far has been a disaster."

The ARL, despite the twin blows of being refused leave to appeal against Super League's court victory and the resignation of their chief executive, John Quayle, are doing their best to carry on as though nothing has happened. Their response to the prospects of going head-to-head with another organisation next season ranges from the long overdue to the well over the top.

In the first category is a match involving the ARL's two remaining glamour clubs, Manly and the Sydney City Roosters in Tokyo today. Japan is a part of the world that has been firmly wedged in the ARL's "too hard" basket, but the need to demonstrate that it can still do something that Super League cannot has concentrated minds wonderfully.

The other area of activity involves the rules. The former Bradford Bulls' coach, Brian Smith, now in charge at Parramatta, has succeeded in getting backing for a change he suggested without attracting appreciable support when he was in England. He wants to see a side scoring a try given the choice of a conversion or possession 20 metres out from the sticks with three tackles in which to score again.

The year ahead might promise a potentially destructive battle to the death between two bitter factions, but it will also be full of similar ideas as both try to gain the ascendancy.