Sport: Games that feed on the hunger march

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PROFESSIONAL SPORTSMEN are liable to be forgiven anything if they demonstrate a willingness to die for the cause. They needn't go as far as actually dying, of course; a visible proximity to complete exhaustion will do or, failing that, a generous display of blood. And no player is ever stretchered off a pitch unless accompanied by loud applause. This has less to do with sympathy than a spontaneous appreciation of sacrifice, and it doesn't do for him to be prancing back on to the field a few minutes later.

Unbridled commitment is such a basic requirement of the job that you wouldn't think the highly paid practitioners of our major games would need reminding. But they do and, sadly, those charged with reminding them are far from regularly rewarded.

When I did my required two years in the forces long ago, I was placed in the Royal Army Service Corps, a fine body of much-maligned men who served under the motto "Nil sine labore". We thought it meant "No sign of work", which seemed appropriate enough. But, no, it means "Nothing without effort".

It is a slogan that should be uppermost in all sporting minds; certainly in this country, because the sentiment contained therein has been central to our philosophy since we first began attempting to chase a ball around in an organised fashion in the 19th Century. Indeed, the importance of being earnest about our games has long put us at a disadvantage with wily foreigners whose motto was more on the lines of: "Nothing without talent".

The ideal is an amalgam of the two. In football particularly, we have seen that happening over the years and the change has been hastened by the mass assimilation of foreign players.

Among the refinements, the rush and bustle is as much in evidence as ever and not the least of Manchester United's accomplishments has been to prove that even the best players have to be yoked to a rate of speed and commitment that must be sustained for 90 minutes.

Most clubs are embarked on similar ambitions but last weekend came heartening evidence that an old favourite might be close to getting the alchemy right. Long-in-the-tooth lovers of Liverpool, who have spent many months in quiet desperation, rejoiced not only in the 2-0 victory over Arsenal at Anfield but in the manner of it.

The way Liverpool tore into their opponents had almost as overpowering an effect on the Press box as it did on Arsenal. It wasn't so much the weight of the tackling as the all-round hunger for the ball. Following an impressive victory against Leeds, it was a clear sign that Gerard Houllier's tortuous journey towards getting his team into shape is nearly over. "They showed they are ready to die for the shirt and I expect that attitude in every game," said Liverpool's manager.

You would expect talk like that from a gnarled veteran of the old English school of management rather than from a man who once dealt in the subtleties of the French national side. But, as Houllier says: "Skill is never enough in football. We must have the desire." How deeply seared into Liverpool's souls is the force of their new motivation will soon be revealed because they play Manchester United at Anfield on Saturday. The season could suddenly take on a fresh complexion.

There were other manifestations last week of what a little extra will can do. In the final match of the Tri-Nations rugby tournament, Australia shook off a severe bout of under- performing to inflict their heaviest-ever defeat on the All Blacks, 28- 7. It did no harm that a world-record crowd of 107,000 in the Sydney Olympic stadium sang a strident "Waltzing Matilda" to send the Aussies into battle "in a mood", to quote the former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons, "to bite the heads off whippets".

New Zealand, favourites for the forthcoming World Cup, found themselves in the unaccustomed state of wilting before the Australian onslaught. Andrew Mehrtens, the All Blacks' outside-half, summed it up simply. "We were out-passioned," he said.

Passion was never going to be a bystander in the World Cup but its possession in bulk is going to be one of the most telling factors and no one will have more than the hosts. Wales' victory over France last weekend was the eighth successive win under Graham Henry, whose transformation of the Welsh team will probably be regarded as the finest coaching feat of all time - and it is nowhere near over yet.

It is difficult to define the reasons for his success, but fundamental to them is the parallel improvement in confidence of the mind as well as the body. Increasing a player's physical presence is not just a matter of slapping some extra muscle on. Will, desire, belief... it is no easier to explain than it is to create it.

But the effect on a team can be colossal. How long it can be sustained is another question but when spectators can see conspicuous examples of unstinted effort it is mightily rewarding; almost enough to stop them complaining about their high wages.

THE FOOTBALL agent Rachel Anderson's court-room victory over the Professional Footballers' Association for refusing to let her attend their annual dinner because of her sex could have been avoided.

The first mistake made by the PFA when Ms Anderson's name appeared on the invitation list was to regard her as a female. Despite their human form, sporting agents are a race and gender apart and should be treated as sexless, state-less and heartless - I was going to say clueless but then I remembered how much money they are knocking up for their clients.

After paying out pounds 52,500 in fines and costs in the tight-lipped manner of a gentleman who knows he has been outsmarted by a lady but is trying valiantly to hide the hurt, the PFA are now said to be considering bringing in a members-only rule for future annual dinners. It's worth a try, although they'll probably be sued by a non-player under the Footballist Discrimination Act.

The sad thing is that there was probably nothing savagely sexist about their objection to her presence at the dinner. I'm not privy to their thoughts but I imagine their only fear was that once the male-only rule had been breached, their wives and girl-friends would have demanded to attend. Bang would go the boys' night-out in town. Worse still, it would have become a dinner-dance in no time at all.

Expensive gowns would have been required and credit-card assaults on the leading fashion houses before the train home next day unavoidable. In any cause celebre in the sex discrimination business, there's always more to it than meets the eye.

That's why the lads will dig their heels in and have their dinner without any outsiders at all. Quite right, too. One day there will be women members of the PFA so they may as well make the most of it.

LONG-TIME students of the funny little ways of those who run our football associations will not have escaped a shiver of nostalgic delight when reading of the 13 Welsh fans who were thrown off the charter plane taking the Welsh team to play Belarus. The fans, all regulars whose fares help to defray the cost of the charter whenever Wales go away, were left complaining that the Welsh FA councillors present should have volunteered to take another flight.

They must be joking. The last time a Welsh plane was over-loaded, the blazer brigade sat rooted to their seats and a player was left behind with a trainer to keep him company.