What links Oldham to Innisfail in Australia? Brian Carney takes you on a rugby league journey...
There was a time about 160 years ago that Oldham, Greater Manchester was capital of the world when it came to cotton. It was the most productive cotton spinning town in the world before it declined and suffered mass unemployment. There was a time when the town's rugby league team was itself one of the best in the world. The Roughyeds (named after the rough felt used to make hats when Oldham was England's hatmaking capital) won three Challenge Cups and were founding members of the breakaway Northern Union in 1895. The team has declined since then and is some way off winning major honours today. That doesn't, however, mean that the town's rugby league players can't have an impact on the world scene.
On Friday, in the World Club Challenge, a proud Oldham lad will seek his fourth World title as captain of the Leeds Rhinos. So readily is Kevin Sinfield associated with the Yorkshire club that many forget he is in fact from Lancashire. Not much more needs to be said about how successful this man has been and continues to be in his rugby league career but there is added pressure, I believe, on him this weekend. He recently won the Golden Boot , a decision that rankled with many Australian journalists. They scoffed at the thought of Kevin getting the award ahead of Ben Barba or Cameron Smith to name but two. Kevin was in a no win situation. He sought no award nor recognition for the season he just completed yet found himself being asked to justify this latest accolade. All Aussie eyes will be on him on Friday. He won't be fazed. You can bet your felt hat on that.
If you want a bet on the game Leeds are currently (Monday morning) being given a four-point start with some bookmakers. Will that be enough? So much will depend on who makes it off the physio table and onto the field. Zak Hardaker and Ryan Bailey are doubtful but there is some good news. Kylie Leuluai is back from injury and will play against the Storm. Injuries almost forced this amiable Mormon to quit the game back in 2004 but he persevered and has had a terrific last seve years at the Rhinos. This might well be his final year playing and winning the World Club Challenge would be a magical start to the countdown for the big Samoan.
Samoa and the Mormon community will be represented on the Melbourne Storm side by new recruit Lagi Setu. He has just spent two years on a Latter Day Saint mission, part of that served here in England. While on his mission he was allowed one hour of internet access per month and no phone calls. Difficult to manage a return to the NRL when clubs like St George Illawarra and the Brisbane Broncos are chasing you but he managed it and Melbourne were the club he plumped for. How will two years away from the gym and the rigours of playing affect this much sought after forward? Friday will go some way towards answering that question but Craig Bellamy has few doubts. Bellamy sees him as a big part of the Storms future.
Happily for Melbourne fans Bellamy will be part of their future after signing a deal until 2016 with a rumoured two-year extension clause. "Bellyache" as he is known by his players has been in Victoria since 2003 and in his own words sees himself "as a fan of the club". How good would Melbourne be without the "mastercoach"? Their supporters are glad that is not a question they will have to answer anytime soon. I'm sure the Sky Sports cameras will be focused on him during the game. His "explosions" offer great viewing! But theatrics weren't why the club owners re-signed him. He has an incredible record at building and more importantly, after the salary cap scandal, rebuilding winning sides. He has had to shed many stars in the past but held on to his "holy trinity" of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.
Slater and Melbourne are like bread and butter. You think of one and the other pops into your head. There must be plenty of talent scouts in Queensland scratching their heads as to how they missed this superstar as he was coming through the junior ranks. While he might have made his name in Victoria he is a proud Queenslander from the far north. Innisfail to be precise. A town first settled (I appreciate that is a poor verb to use considering the country was already inhabited) by an Irishman, Thomas Henry Fitzgerald, in 1879. His house and subsequently Billy's birthplace was named Innisfallen , shortened to Innisfail, after an island on Killarney's beautiful lakes.