Rugby Union: Steel pervades Thunder

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE Gateshead Thunder won there last month, the Castleford coach, Stuart Raper, said that the style of the Super League newcomers might earn them some points, but precious few spectators. There was some truth in Raper's sour prediction. Gateshead have now won four on the trot, but few are watching.

They face one of the game's sterner tests at Wigan today, with their coach, Shaun McRae, rejecting any suggestion that they have been boring their way into top-five contention. "I think Stuart might regret what he said," McRae said. "We've scored a lot of points in our last two games, although you've got to play to your strengths and I'd be the first to admit that our success has been based around good defence."

There is no contradiction there in rugby league. You attack when you have the ball; you defend when you haven't. Simple - and Gateshead have both been doing rather well. "This is our chance to beat a top-four side for the first time," McRae said. "We're looking forward to seeing how far we have improved."

Victory over a world-famous name such as Wigan could have a galvanising effect on the so far reluctant north-east public. The Wigan coach, John Monie, has gone on the record as doubting whether expansion in the north- east can work. It would have made more sense, he has said, to have invested in a Super League franchise in Cumbria, with its deep rugby league roots.

Like Raper's remarks, those were not construed as helpful to Gateshead as they struggle to establish their credibility. "I don't know how much time John has spent in Cumbria, but the fact is that we have to expand our game," McRae said. "You have to start somewhere and the authorities in their wisdom decided that it should be in the North-east. We all still believe that it is a feasible idea."

With a full-strength team at Central Park today, Gateshead could make life difficult for a Wigan side who have looked vulnerable when faced by determined opponents, losing to Halifax and Castleford.

If Gateshead can keep mistakes down to a bare minimum today, they will make no apologies for giving Wigan's supporters a frustrating afternoon. John Monie, on the other hand, could have all his misgivings about the North-east frontier confirmed.