Shaw's freakish pace leaves the rest standing; NEW FACES FOR '96: Two young prospects have wasted no time in announcing their arrival

Dave Hadfield highlights the Leeds hooker whose talent is redefining the art of attacking play from that position
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The Independent Online
No breed of player encapsulates the dramatic changes that have taken place in the way the game is played like the modern hooker.

Once the preserve of rough-hewn, bad-tempered men with busted noses and no pretensions, the role now attracts swift, incisive players who would have been natural half-backs in another era.

The Walters brothers of Australia are the prototypes, but, even with the recent incumbents Martin Dermott and Lee Jackson out of the picture, Britain is well equipped with young hookers who could stand comparison.

Keiron Cunningham of St Helens, who shone briefly for Wales in the World Cup, and Paul Rowley, on the transfer list at Halifax for a mighty pounds 250,000, are two out of that mould; alert and creative to their bootlaces.

But the quickest and most eye-catching is Mick Shaw. He is not yet sure of his place in the Leeds first team every week, but he is several stages ahead of the status quo in his particular art.

The first time that Hugh McGahan, Leeds' newly arrived manager, saw him he thought that Shaw was the fastest dummy half in the world - swifter even than Steve Walters, the quicksilver link-man around whom much of Canberra and Australia's success has been built. That freakish pace was a feature of his game at reserve team level last season, with Shaw being named the Alliance Player of the Year as Leeds won the competition.

McGahan and the Leeds coach, Dean Bell, were cautious about throwing him straight into the first team, as many fans excited by his potential were urging. For one thing, they already had a highly effective hooker in James Lowes, a converted half-back whose contribution generally includes 30 or so tackles a match.

For another, their feeling was that Shaw, at just turned 20, still had something to do before other aspects of his game - such as his tackling and distribution - matched his electrifying running with the ball.

So Shaw was introduced gradually, as a substitute to begin with, his eye for a gap proving devastating against tiring defences.

In November, the newcomer achieved the considerable feat of forcing Lowes into the second row while he put together a run of six starts in the No 9 shirt. Since then, he has alternated between the bench and the starting line-up, but there is little doubt that Shaw is a major asset for the future.

The way the game is now played could be designed specifically for him. There are too few scrums for his lack of size to be any sort of handicap, and he is perfectly adapted for the acting half-back role that is now the hooker's central function.

The 10 metres that the defence has to retreat at the play-the-ball gives him room in which to work, and referees' insistence on a quick restart of play gives him every opportunity to catch tacklers off balance and out of position with his sudden acceleration.

When he learns, as he surely will, how to make the best use of the half- break he will always make, and when his passing skills mature to give him the full range of options, Shaw will almost inevitably be a match- winner for Leeds as well as a crowd-pleaser.

The old-timers, bred for 40 or 50 scrums a game, would have chewed him up and spat him out contemptuously. But their style of game is extinct; the way it is played now, and, even more so, the way it will be played in the summer, is Mick Shaw's way.

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