The British stupor league

Dave Hadfield looks at the class divide in the unequal world championsh ip
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The Independent Online
If there is one phrase of which we will all be heartily sick by the end of the Visa World Club Championship, it is "learning curve". Thrashed by the bottom club in the southern hemisphere? Hammered by a record score in Canberra? Humiliated by a bits-and-pieces outfit like Adelaide? Blame the learning curve, something British clubs have been on for so long that it must actually resemble a corkscrew.

Australasian players and coaches are being diplomacy itself - after all, we're all in the Super League camp together - predicting that British teams will come good as they adjust to the greater intensity of the southern game.

Their press is not so polite, laying into our pretensions of parity with relish. Even here, the feeling of having gone backwards is hard to shake off. The other day, someone who has seen all this before glanced across the grandstand, raised one eyebrow and mouthed: "1982."

That year is shorthand in British rugby league for the revelation that the Aussies were further ahead than we dared imagine. Suddenly, 15 years seemed a very short time. But is it really as bad as that? Maurice Lindsay, the chief executive of the European game and the architect of this uneven competition, says that he expected our sides to struggle. "I said from the start that we might not win a game in Australia, although, thankfully, Wigan came up with that victory for us," he said.

With Wigan winning - and Bradford looking set that night to emulate them - Lindsay was a lot more relaxed. He hadn't been able to sleep the night before, he said, with nothing but eight defeats to count in lieu of sheep. "But I'll sleep tonight."

The Warrington coach, Darryl Van de Velde, had been even gloomier in his prognosis than Lindsay. "I don't think British clubs will win a game," he said, before Wigan proved him wrong. "We haven't got enough quality players," he added. "We haven't got the strength in depth that they have in Australia. Cronulla were bringing players off the bench against us who would get into any side here - any side.

"They are able to bring 18- and 19-year-old blokes into the side who are brought up in the game and ready for it. We spend thousands on our Academy team and we have to teach them the basics when we get them here."

Part of the blame for that, he is convinced, lies with the continuing rift between the amateur and professional arms of the game. "You've got to have a unified governing body - common aims and objectives. We won't do anything until that is sorted out."

In the wake of Bradford's narrow defeat by Penrith, the Bulls' Australian coach,Matthew Elliott, revived two of his long-running campaigns. There are twin bees in Elliott's bonnet - once a week rugby and full-time referees - and he believes that both would improve the British game at a stroke. On the matter of full-time officials, Elliott would have considerable support at League HQ - but the money would have to be found to finance it. Squeezing too many games into the season is a different case. That is something we choose to do and the choice can be changed without incurring any direct cost.

Elliott says that he went to watch one Australian club in training and found them doing a full-scale fitness and endurance session on a Thursday. "I can never do that, because I'm either getting them over three matches in eight days or getting them ready for three matches in eight days. Either we keep the fixture list as it is and resign ourselves to the certainty of being second best, or we do something about it."

One of Australia's most respected coaches, Tim Sheens of the North Queensland Cowboys, took up a related theme this week, saying that southern sides were showing their northern counterparts what a high level of intensity can be sustained, if the preparation is right.

"To me, that is the essence of what the World Club Championship is all about," he said. "With frequent competition and the right attitude, the English game can only improve."

That is only a short step from saying that we are on a learning curve. But Sheens - and, in their different ways, Elliott and Van de Velde - are giving it to us straight.