Students seeking honours

Peter Ward says rugby league's latest showpiece is no academic exercise
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The Fourth Student Rugby League World Cup, sponsored, like its full international counterpart, by the Halifax, got under way with a two- match programme at Wilderspool yesterday with another game, later in the day, between New Zealand and Western Samoa at Halifax.

They were the openers for an 18-match set of preliminaries, which will all be played within the next eight days, leading to a whole sideboard full of cups, plates and bowl trophies which will be contested the week after. The tournament ends with the third/fourth place play-off and the Cup final in a double header at Salford on the last day of this month. The competition, started from a five-nation base in 1986 in New Zealand, had grown to eight by 1989 in England, and increased again to 10 teams three years later when it was staged in Australia, who are the present holders.

Geography, and with it finance, largely dictate the entries: Fiji, Tonga and Papua New Guinea are all absentees this time (rugby league authorities please note: rugby union sevens teams of all three nations are getting to Dubai or Uruguay, for heaven's sake, for the Rugby World Cup Sevens preliminaries, and the best of luck to them). Taking their places, and hoisting the numbers to 12, are the United States, Japan, South Africa, Russia, all complete newcomers, and France, who were last-minute drop- outs from the 1992 tournament.

The teams themselves sometimes belie the "student" tag, with some full international players qualified to take part. France are fielding Eric van Brussel and Jean-Luc Ramondou, and four of the South Africans were in the Rhinos side that took part in the Centenary World Cup last autumn. The more established nations are better able to stay with the Corinthian ethic, but the Australian side are regarded as a senior version of the schoolboy tourists that regularly devastates the rest of their age group.

Which is why Australia are favourites to retain the Cup. The serious opposition should come from France, traditionally strong at this level, and New Zealand, who never go anywhere without wanting to come away with a prize. Among the lesser trophies, Ireland should be worth watching out for and Western Samoa have the benefit of the support of a host of professional compatriots in England, most notably Va'aiga Tuigamala.

The first of the Warrington matches, between England and France, saw England take the lead with a penalty after 10 minutes only for France, with a side containing 10 First Division players, to go 16-2 up at half- time with tries from van Brussel, Nicolas and Giudicelli, and goals from Crismanovich.

Bernard, the French left centre, was sent off for a spear tackle on his opposite number, Kettlewell, after the interval. But there had already been a further French try, from Foulquier, and despite the reduction in numbers France went on to win 29-2. Their fifth try came from Giudicelli and Foulquier supplied a drop goal.