Weather looks set fair for Thunder

Three years ago Super League rugby saw a false dawn in Paris but the latest new team show promise.
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The Independent Online
AS GATESHEAD THUNDER defied the great, elemental forces of the North-east - rain, wind and Newcastle United - to make an encouraging start to life in Super League on Sunday, minds inevitably drifted back to another night three years ago. Gateshead are the second new franchise to enter the competition. Enthusiasm for the way they seem to have many things right has to be tempered by memories of what happened to the first.

On the face of it, Paris St-Germain made an even better start than the Thunder. They were not merely competitive; they beat Sheffield Eagles 30-24 and did so at the Charlety Stadium in front of a crowd which, at more than 17,000, was three times as many as Gateshead attracted to their inaugural fixture. It proved a false dawn, however. Paris won only two more matches that season and, within two years, they were extinct and virtually unmourned, with crowds having slumped to a low of 500.

It sounds like a bad omen for the Thunder, but there should not be too much read into it. The two events do have more in common than locals speaking a strange language and the presence of Kath Hetherington, then a Sheffield and now a Gateshead director. Both involve winning over an alien audience for an unfamiliar sport, but there, Gateshead hope, the similarities end. There is one immediate difference. Paris's crowds that first night and subsequently were inflated by free tickets and an even more free use of the imagination.

"Everyone at Gateshead paid," said the Thunder's chief executive, Shane Richardson. Anything else would amount to the new club conning itself and, as a genuine attendance, 5,960 represents a decent base to build on.

The deck, after all, was heavily stacked against them, with a combination of live television, foul weather and Alan Shearer and Co strutting their stuff across the city. "All things considered, it was a very encouraging start," Richardson said.

The difference should be that at Gateshead, unlike Paris, a greater proportion of that opening night attendance will be back, despite their new team's 24-14 defeat by Leeds.Unlike Paris, who had deepening contractual problems with their players, Gateshead will get better.

Judging by the way they played in the wet and in their first competitive game, they will provide compelling entertainment when they get a dry track to run on and the sun on their backs.

Like the Thunder, Paris eventually brought in large numbers of Australian players - for, quite simply, there is a surplus. Deon Bird is the common link between the two, returning from Adelaide to join his second European Super League club, but that is as far as the comparison goes.

The French-based side did not have players of the calibre of Kerrod Walters, Willie Peters or Brett Grogan and, as the season goes on, the difference in quality will become more apparent.

Paris were eventually regarded as cuckoos in the nest of their parent organisation, the Paris St-Germain football club. Gateshead's equivalent relationship is with their local council, whose energetic support for a project that puts the town on the national sporting map, is not in doubt. Paris were permanently broke; Gateshead announced their arrival as serious players with one of the biggest club sponsorship deals ever tied up.

The administration in Paris was a mess - and did not get any better when Super League and Maurice Lindsay launched a "rescue" operation. As the picture developed, nobody was really sure who was in charge. At Gateshead, there is no debate about it; it is the creature of Richardson and Hetherington, who between them have an expertise in the field that underpins the whole dream.

There were uplifting nights at the Charlety and a longer-term commitment to the idea might by now have paid dividends. Their fireworks worked on opening night; Gateshead's did not, but that was the only real dampener on the proceedings.

There are, of course, things that need to be worked on. A ground announcer explaining play to newcomers only helps if he gets it right; the club's mascot, Captain Thunder, needs to return to his own planet in some distant galaxy for further training.

But these are minor matters. What really counts is that Gateshead should build on a solid start, make progress towards their declared aim of fielding a British team and be given time to prove their worth to the game.

It all looked feasible on Sunday night. We might have said something similar after Paris's debut three years ago, but some vital lessons about what it takes to thrive in Super League have surely been learned since then.

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