Wigan men can fire Warriors

A bigger Winfield Cup starts today. Dave Hadfield reports from Auckland
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If this is Auckland, it must be Friday and the start of a weekend during which rugby league will make a nonsense of boundaries - geographic and sporting - in the southern hemisphere.

The four new clubs spread across three time zones who are playing their first games in the Winfield Cup - the sport's most demanding competition - represent the most significant expansion of the code at its highest level since it was first played in Sydney 88 years ago.

Little more than a decade ago, Sydney was not merely the focus of the Winfield Cup, it was where it began and ended. Suggestions that teams from Perth and Auckland should take part in New South Wales' private competition would have been greeted as about as likely as the league in England inviting entrants from Cornwall and Cologne.

And yet, over the next three days, the Auckland Warriors, South Queensland Crushers in Brisbane, the north Queensland Cowboys in Townsville and the Western Reds in Perth will all make their debuts. With a flying media circus of 75 shadowing the action, to say that their performances will be closely watched is a serious understatement.

In the case of Auckland, a whole country will be watching, but their inaugural match tonight presents them with a formidable task - a visit from the Brisbane Broncos.

Even before the signing this week of John Kirwan, who will not play a competitive match for at least three weeks, the Auckland Warriors were a huge marketing and promotional success. The 31,000-capacity Ericsson stadium has been sold out for weeks and the publicity the Warriors have attracted has, for the first time, overshadowed the national obsession with rugby union.

Auckland will have the whole of New Zealand behind them, and they will need it. Being unable to field the Great Britain prop, Andy Platt, who is still recovering from a knee operation, is a major blow to his former Wigan coach, John Monie, who still awaits the arrival of his other signings from his old club, Denis Betts and Frano Botica.

There is still a strong Wigan flavour, however, with Phil Blake at full- back and Dean Bell captaining from centre. Significantly, all but one of Monie's back division have previous experience in the Winfield Cup.

It will not be easy to avoid a clear-cut defeat, but Monie did not leave a job for life at Wigan for an easy existence, but because the opportunity to build a club from the scratch was irresistible.

Much the same can be said of Darryl Van de Velde, the former Castleford coach who is now chief executive of the Crushers. Van de Velde also considered coaching the side at one stage, but that role, during what is certain to be a testing first season, falls to Bob Lindner, who steered Oldham to First Division safety last season.

There is a Castleford influence in the Crushers' camp, with their former winger, St John Ellis, in the starting side against Canberra tomorrow afternoon.

There is little doubt that Brisbane can support a second Winfield Cup team, and the Crushers will also be bringing one of the most atmospheric grounds back into use, even if Lang Park is now officially the Suncorp stadium.

Their squad still looks well short of the required standard. Playing the reigning Premiers, the Canberra Raiders, in their first match is a daunting prospect, even if the Raiders seem in a little disarray.

Already weakened by the retirement of Mal Meninga and the continuing row with Auckland over the future of Reuben Wiki, Canberra this week left out Brett Mullins, surely the world's best full-back, and Jason Croker, considered unlucky not to make the last Kangaroo tour, for reasons of discipline.

Tomorrow night, the caravan moves north to Townsville, for the debut of perhaps the most colourful of the newcomers. North Queensland has long been a breeding ground for outstanding rugby league players, but the idea of a club side based there was never seriously considered until the league took a Winfield Cup match up there and was overwhelmed by the response.

The lobbying of the North Queenslanders had a style all of its own. They say they forced their way into the Winfield Cup on the shell of a mudcrab and the skin of a mango, because it was while the hierarchy in Sydney were chewing on these North Queensland delicacies, sent down by the crateload, that they began to develop a taste for the proposal.

The Cowboys can also claim to have made it by the seat of Kerry Boustead's pants.

Their chief executive, the former Hull KR player who is better remembered for his long career on the wing for Australia, had to climb over the gate of what is now the Stocklands stadium in order to open it up and show the delegation from Sydney its potential. The repair bill for his trousers was considered an acceptable expense.

Although the arrival on a short-term contract in May of Jonathan Davies will give their profile an immediate boost, the Cowboys' squad looks more workmanlike than colourful.

On Sunday, then the scene switches to Perth, where the Western Reds play St George at the WACA. The Reds start with the disadvantage of being based in a city without a strong league tradition, though they will be, for the foreseeable future, a team of imports.

Their use of another former Wigan coach, John Dorahy, in a recruitment role means that there will be a strong English element in the mix, with Barrie-John Mather and Daio Powell both due in May.

Few would be surprised if at the end of the weekend the scorecard reads new boys nil, establishment four, but that will be only the start of what should be rugby league's most exciting weekend this century.