Rugby Union: Wales eager to take on the world: Dave Hadfield assesses today's tour opener for the Kiwis

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The Independent Online
RUGBY LEAGUE will discover this afternoon whether its prospects in Wales have recovered from the near-mortal insult of excluding a proud national side from the 1995 World Cup.

The original omission of Wales - which owed more to poor planning than to malice - caused outrage among those involved in the code in the Principality.

The Welsh team manager, Jim Mills, resigned in fury and, as today's scrum-half against New Zealand, Kevin Ellis, put it: 'A lot of the players were asking whether it was worth playing for Wales any more.'

The Rugby League, with virtual autonomy as far as arrangements for the Centenary World Cup are concerned, have tried to repair the damage by incorporating Wales in a new format, but it is undeniable that damage has been done.

That has been reflected in slower sales of tickets than for the other three internationals at Vetch Field since the Welsh team was re-formed two years ago; the matches against Papua New Guinea, France and England all attracted five-figure crowds.

Nevertheless, the match is an attractive one, with Wales as strong as they can be until Paul Moriarty recovers from his broken arm and his old Swansea team-mate, Richard Webster, adapts to the demands of league, as Salford firmly believe he will.

Ellis, partnered at stand-off by Jonathan Davies, who plays in his old union position for the Welsh league side for the first time, has a vital role. He is up against the New Zealand captain, Gary Freeman, a scrum-half who combines fierce competitiveness with the full range of skills.

New Zealand's other strengths are on the wings, where Shaun Hoppe is as fast and elusive a runner as any in the world and Daryl Halligan's goal-kicking could render Frano Botica, one of a dozen British-based players who could be called on for the Tests, redundant for this series. In the front row, Mark Jones, the one Welsh forward in the Great Britain squad for the Tests, has every incentive to show that he can match John Lomax and Brent Stuart.

The belated World Cup invitation, the overdue appointment of a Welsh development officer and the start of what could be a new trickle of union talent into the game has made this a good week for rugby league in Wales. It will still not end as a bad one even if the Kiwis open their tour with a win today.

WALES: Ford (Salford); Cordle (Bradford), Bateman (Warrington), Devereux (Widnes), Sullivan (St Helens); Davies (Warrington, capt), Ellis (Warrington); Young (Salford), B Williams (Carlisle), Jones (Hull), Marlow (Wakefield), Phillips (Warrington), Griffiths (St Helens). Substitutes: Hadley (Widnes), Pearce (Ryedale- York), P Williams (Salford), Ackerman (Cardiff Inst).

NEW ZEALAND: M Edwards; Halligan, Ropati, Taewa, Hoppe; Ngamu, Freeman; J Lomax, Mann, Stuart, Kearney , Pongia, Mackie. Substitutes: Nixon, L Edwards, J Williams, Piva.

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