Hepatitis news will worry Pongia rivals

PETER SMITH INSIDE RUGBY LEAGUE RUGBY LEAGUE is getting to be almost as accident prone as the round ball game.

After betting scandals, rows about under-strength teams, salary cap breaches and failed drugs tests, it has now been revealed that a leading Super League star played through the opening stages of the season while suffering from hepatitis B.

Rumours of Wigan prop Quentin Pongia's illness have been circulating for a while, but the story was blown wide open in a national Sunday newspaper, which devoted a two-page spread to what it called "one of the most disturbing scandals to hit any sport".

The paper accused Wigan of "covering up" Pongia's illness, something both the club and the Rugby Football League have emphatically denied this week.

The RFL moved quickly to confirm that Wigan informed them in February of Pongia's positive test for hepatitis B, which is an infectious blood ailment.

The RFL have also claimed that the player's name was not revealed because of a legal obligation to protect anonymity, rather than a deliberate cover-up by the club.

Pongia had played in all Wigan's 15 games this season before being left out of the side to face Wakefield on the day the story broke.

According to Wigan, he had been cleared to play after undergoing a course of treatment which eliminated the risk of infection through blood contact.

It is impossible to believe either the RFL or Wigan would take any sort of risks with a player's health, but the revelations about Pongia's illness will be a concern to players who have faced him this year.

Wigan have played every other team in Super League at least once this season, which means hundreds of rival players have come into contact with Pongia - often literally and with a great deal of impact.

Rugby league - which led the way by introducing the blood-bin at the height of the AIDS scare in the 1980s - is a blood and guts sport. Injuries occur and bleeding is common.

Players may not legally have a right to know if someone on an opposing team is suffering from a potentially infectious condition, but morally they will feel they do.

Rival clubs were apparently informed that hepatitis B was in the game, though Pongia was not named.

As far as rules and regulations are concerned, Wigan seem to have done things by the book and there's little doubt the newspaper allegations have blown the entire business out of proportion, certainly as far as allegations of a cover-up are concerned.

But you would hope that should similar circumstances arise in future, the player's club would have the good sense to discreetly leave him on the sidelines.

Still, it made a nice change to have a rugby league scandal break which did not involve St Helens.

Over in Australia, the game's image has taken an even worse battering. As rugby league breathed a sigh of relief at the news Canterbury Bulldogs players would not face charges over allegations of serious sexual assault, another bad news story was breaking.

Mark Gasnier was booted out of the New South Wales squad for leaving an obscene message on a woman's mobile phone in the early hours of the morning after a "team bonding" session.

Anthony Minichiello, whose phone was used to send the message, was dropped for ignoring a mobile phone ban - and five other players were fined for assorted breaches of squad discipline.

It's a sorry tale and once again rugby league's good name has been dragged through the mud.

In Australia, particularly in Sydney, the game is big news on the front pages as well as the back. Over here rugby league does not have the same impact, but looking on the bright side it is perhaps an indication of the game's growing status that two national newspapers have deemed it worthy of major coverage over recent weeks.

As they say, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Fortunately, rugby league can always be relied upon to get it right on the field. There have been some cracking games in Tetley's Super League already this year, but last Friday's Hull versus Leeds showdown was a classic, as good as anything seen since the competition began back in 1996.

It says something about the current state of the game that Hull were disappointed with a crowd of "only" 16,528.

Hull had been hoping for 20,000-plus and they would probably have got it had Rhinos' fans not decided to vote with their feet and stay away.

Only 1,800 travelled and that is hardly surprising given the history of crowd problems involving Leeds games at Hull.

The East Yorkshire club are working hard to put all that behind them - for example, shirts carrying the slogan 'We 8 Leeds' have been banned from KC Stadium and official club coaches - and there was a superb atmosphere at the ground last week.

KC Stadium is probably the finest ground currently staging Super League and it is a relatively safe place to visit - plus for Leeds fans there is also the added attraction of a record there which reads played three, won three.

Hull might well ask for special dispensation to return to the Boulevard next time the Rhinos come to town.

Welcome to France for Super League

THE 12 existing Super League clubs have made a bold decision by agreeing to allow French outfit Union Treiziste Catalane - to be known as Perpignan - into the competition in 2006.

Perpignan will be exempt from relegation for two years, will receive the same funding as the other Super League clubs and may be allowed to exceed the overseas quota of three players.

French rugby league is struggling and this decision will breathe new life into the sport over the Channel, as well as giving Super League added spice and glamour.

The decision not to increase the size of Super League means some of the turkeys have voted for Christmas - and the clubs now face a tough decision over how to admit Perpignan and continue with a 12-team competition.

A 13 or 14-team Super League would have been a far better proposition, but clubs are unwilling to accept the cut in central funding that would entail.

Castleford, Salford, Widnes and London seem to be in the greatest danger and for one of them - plus whoever is promoted from National One - avoiding the drop this year may only be delaying the inevitable.

Incidentally, Leeds Rhinos boss Tony Smith is out of contract at the end of next season, when Daryl Powell is due to return to the helm. Don't be surprised if the highly-rated Aussie emerges as Perpignan's first Super League coach.

Southern bias

IT may be very early days but there's an encouraging look to the current LHF Healthplan National Three table.

After three games the leaders are: top St Albans, second Warrington Woolston, third Coventry, fourth South London - with the likes of Bradford (Dudley Hill), Leeds (Bramley) and Huddersfield (Underbank) all trailing in their wake.

Who says rugby league's a northern game?

Away days

IN Tetley's Super League, home is where the hurt is. All last weekend's six fixtures were won by the visiting team.

Who are you?

St Helens - including under-investigation duo Martin Gleeson and Sean Long - ran out at Warrington last Saturday to You Better You Bet by The Who.

Prize Guy Danny Meets Hero Lorimer

Leeds United fan Danny McGuire is pictured receiving his Tetley's player of the month award from Elland Road legend Peter Lorimer.

The presentation, made at Lorimer's pub in Leeds, was better late than never as it recognised McGuire's form during February/March at the start of the season.

He touched down six tries in Leeds Rhinos' opening four games and made more clean breaks than any other player in Super League with 16.

The judging for the award was carried out by a panel of rugby league journalists and broadcasters who regularly cover Tetley's Super League.

McGuire received a specially designed trophy, provided by sponsors Tetley's, as well as a case of Tetley's Smoothflow.

Lorimer said: "I would like to congratulate Danny on his Tetley's player of the month award.

"It is superb to see a young player from Leeds playing so well for his home-town team and I wish him and the rest of the Leeds Rhinos squad all the best for the remainder of the season."