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Author: David Hickie
Date: 07/10/1989
Words: 1281
          Publication: Sun Herald
Section: Sport
Page: 82
ONCE upon a time, not so very long ago, Sydney rugby league administrators, coaches, players and fans assumed no team outside the harbour city's metropolitan area could come within 30 points of playing the game with equal skill.

A decade of humiliating defeats for Great Britain at Test level, of cricket-score slaughters for Queensland club teams in mid-week Cup matches, and of embarrassing no-contests against NSW Country outfits underlined the cast-iron basis of that belief.

But all of a sudden the tide has turned - and I, for one, am not ashamed to admit it's made the sport a whole lot more exciting and genuinely entertaining.

Even during the consistent superiority of Queensland's sons in the early State Of Origin series, the knockers harped that many of the Maroon stars were, in fact, now fulltime members of Sydney clubs - and hence, they argued, if they hadn't come and learned how to play the game in the Big Time they'd never have finished within cooee of the Sydney lads.

However, the tenets of such religiously-held beliefs are currently looking decidedly shaky. Two years ago those supposedly non-tackling upstarts from Wigan defeated Manly in the first "world club championship" challenge match.

Then last season Brisbane entered the Sydney competition. And despite its failure to win the competition - and the knockers' previous claims that King Wally and his mob would never survive the "weekly grind" of tussling "year-in and year-out" with the Big Boys - the Broncos have indeed consistently produced winning football and at a standard equal to any of the top teams in the premiership.

Meanwhile Newcastle, after starting out with a band of virtual unknowns, has in barely two seasons established itself as capable of mixing it with -and regularly beating - any of the leading Sydney clubs.

Last season the Poms also arrived on tour - and the local experts immediately wrote them off as second rate when compared with our high-profile stars.

Certainly, Australia did duly win the first two Tests - though, I might add, not nearly as easily as many stunned analysts had expected.

But the king hit came when the Brits, with nothing to play for, stepped out in the third Test at the Sydney Football Stadium and trounced the Aussie All Stars.

Though the entertaining effort was politely acknowledged, in reality the local experts refused to accept it as anything more than a one-off fluke.

It would now appear, however, that the portents of recent seasons have been ignored.

First we had the Canberra Raiders, themselves branded a bunch of easy-beats only a few seasons ago, committing the equivalent of rugby league blasphemy and stealing the sacred Winfield Cup away from its Sydney altar.

Then, as if to top the rot, the NSW premiership champions were themselves humbled 30-18 last week by a Widnes team which played some truly scintillating football.

Of course, as the experts will be quick to point out, Canberra might indeed just as decisively defeat Widnes in any return bout in Australia. But that debate overlooks the far more significant underlying trend.

That is simply this - like it or not, in 1989 the Poms, the Queenslanders and the major NSW non-Sydney outfits are once again looking extremely competitive.

Of particular interest after the Widnes victory were the post-match comments from former Parramatta captain Ray Price, never a man to mince words: "I've been in England for only a week but I can already report that the Kangaroos are going to have a real battle on their hands on the tour here at the end of next season.

"They've improved out of sight since I was last here four years ago. In those days Great Britain would be lucky to have had three or four players of Test match quality.

"The Poms haven't won a Test series since way back in 1970. But they're going to make it awfully interesting next time. It should be a classic series."

Similarly, Australian Rugby League chief Ken Arthurson admitted the big win by Widnes was further proof that English league had improved immensely since 1986.

"There's no doubt the standard of play indicates there is plenty of talent over there," Arthurson said.

Certainly Australian fans are now familiar with a veritable feast of try-scoring talent among the British backs - Ellery Hanley, Andy Currier, Martin Offiah, Joe Lydon, Andy Gregory, Shaun Edwards, Steve Hampson, Tony Myler and Jonathon Davies, to name just a few.

However, on the matter of the Poms' supposed "low work rate" forward talent, Arthurson also warned: "It has been claimed by some that the Englishmen won't have the forwards to match the Kangaroos. But from what I saw of a few of the Widnes forwards, those suggestions might be way off base."

If nothing else, the overall effect of the Widnes victory will at least be to dispel any future complacency about the ability, fitness and "ticker when the going gets tough" of the modern British footballer.

Having said that, Widnes coach Doug Laughton appeared to become carried away by the post-match champagne bubbles when he confidently asserted that Widnes was immediately issuing a challenge for a rematch with Canberra in Australia next season.

The astute Price summed up: "I couldn't see them beating the Raiders away from their home territory. In fact, I have no doubts the scoreline would have been reversed if it was Widnes that had to fly to Australia just a few days after winning a grand final ... It's proved too big a hurdle for Manly against Wigan and now Canberra against Widnes."

Price was probably pretty close to the mark when he summed up Canberra's form: "The Canberra players found out just how hard it is to raise themselves for another big effort after hitting their peak almost two weeks ago for the grand final.

"While more than half the Canberra side carried injuries into the match after a long hard season in Sydney, the Widnes players were fresh and jumping out of their skins. After the opening 25 minutes, there was no determination or intensity from the Canberra players. The defence just fell away and Widnes took full advantage."

In the end - to use one of the oldest cliches in the armchair critic's notebook - the game of rugby league itself was the big winner.

The Widnes-Canberra clash was exciting, dramatic and brim full of edge-of-the-seat entertainment from the opening whistle right through to the fulltime siren.

But at the end, I couldn't help recalling Wayne Bennett's warning when he left Canberra to return to Brisbane in 1988 to prepare the Broncos for their initial foray into the Winfield Cup.

Bennett boldly suggested to a reporter that the majority of Sydney stars were deluding themselves - that, in fact, they were not nearly as far ahead of the rest of the footballing world as they imagined.

Events of late suggest his summation may have been a lot closer to the mark than many of his critics were prepared to admit.

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