reports from Perth
Even in an hour of considerable triumph, Australian Rugby League is once more facing a possible revolt from within.
Only one of the four new clubs in the Winfield Cup won this weekend, the Western Reds' 28-16 win over St George in Perth yesterday actually made it one more win for the newcomers than most commentators had predicted.
A better gauge of the success of the game's biggest weekend of expansion was the figure of more than 100,000 people at the four games. "That's 100,000 new spectators for rugby league," the chairman of the ARL, Ken Arthurson, said as he flew back to Sydney, exhausted but vindicated by what he had seen. "The 100,000 was roughly what we expected, but the atmosphere and the excitement was beyond all expectations."
From the full house in Auckland on Friday night, through the slight feeling that they have seen it all before in Brisbane, and the parochialism of North Queensland to the cosmopolitan mix of New Zealand and British accents at the WACA, there was a feeling of the game reaching out to new audiences.
The WACA, where the Reds and St George stumped across the wicket made infamous by Dennis Lillee, was the perfect climax to the weekend. The ideal script allowed for one of the new sides winning and the Reds obliged with three players who spent last season in England scoring tries and another emerging as man of the match.
Jeff Doyle, who was at Hull, Matthew Fuller, formerly with Wakefield Trinity, and David Boyd, who spent time with Halifax, got on the score- sheet, while Rodney Howe was the game's most outstanding player. "It was just what we all dreamed of for the last six months," Howe, who was briefly with Widnes, said.
They were not the only contributors to a memorable weekend with English connections. Auckland's Wigan contingent is still incomplete but its influence was plain enough on Friday; while St John Ellis made his mark with a goal, the most extravagant try-scoring celebration of the three days came when the South Queensland Crushers took the lead over Canberra.
Having been transported, courtesy of motorcycle outriders and mad dashes through air terminals to all four games, I can only say that to British eyes it is incredible that the sort of frontier-breaking that we can only dream of in this country should be accompanied in Australia not only by whingeing and carping, but also by the revival of an alternative plan that would send the new clubs back to the obscurity from which they came within a year.
The party that has travelled around Australasia to see the results of the expansion policy was somewhere over Ayers Rock, on the way from Townsville to Perth, when the story broke that nine clubs were once more alleged to be talking about cutting and running.
Although Arthurson has already extracted denials from some potential prime movers, and although Rupert Murdoch's attempted coup was voted down last month, the spectre of a breakaway refuses to disappear.
"We haven't brought these teams into the Winfield Cup just to see them dropped after one season," Arthurson said. The irony is that neither of the clubs most vocal in their opposition to the new 20-team competition, the Brisbane Broncos and Canberra Raiders, would exist at all if the policy of expansion had not been put in place. Arthurson said: "I'm not actually all that worried, because I believe that what is good for the game will win through in the end."
There will, he concedes, probably be some natural wastage. It is hard to see how, for instance, Balmain, renamed the Sydney Tigers and relocated 15 miles west to Parramatta, can have much of a long-term future.
But Arthurson still has a couple of other expansion targets in mind. "I'm still very keen to get Melbourne and Adelaide involved," he said. "There have never been more good, young players in Australia. The argument that there is not enough to go around is not true."
One expansion idea that does not meet with his unqualified approval, however, is planting a team of British players in Adelaide, the most English of Australia's cities. "The idea hasn't been ruled out, but it is hard to just plant a side and say to people there's your team. You have to build things up. That's what we did with these four teams and that's why it is going to be such a success."
WINFIELD CUP First round: Brisbane 25 Auckland 22; Canberra 24 South Queensland 6; Sydney Bulldogs 32 North Queensland 12; Newcastle 6 Cronulla- Sutherland 4; Manly-Warringah 42 South Sydney 18; Balmain 24 Sydney Roosters 18; Penrith 24 Parramatta 18; North Sydney 50 Gold Coast 10; Western Suburbs 25 Illawarra 24; Western Reds 28 St George 16.Reuse content