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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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.