Rugby: Union looks to commandeer Connolly for World Cup

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GARY CONNOLLY, the Wigan rugby league centre widely regarded as the outstanding British midfield talent of his generation, is in demand from both codes of the game. The Rugby Football Union is investigating the possibility of striking a unique joint deal with the Lancashire club that would enable Connolly to play for England in the 1999 World Cup.

Connolly is due to join an Australian league club in June next year, but a successful RFU-Wigan venture could keep him in Britain. The scheme under discussion would see the RFU buy out the player's Australian Rugby League contract, install him in the England squad until the end of the World Cup and then release him back to Wigan, who would thus retain the services of their top-of-the-bill attraction without having to compensate the ARL.

The England coach, Clive Woodward, is an admirer of Connolly's; indeed, he considered him a world-class talent during his brief spell with Harlequins last season. Intriguingly, Connolly has worked closely with another member of England's back-room panel, the former Great Britain rugby league coach, Phil Larder.

However, any attempt to sign Connolly on an RFU contract would automatically infuriate England's leading professional clubs, to whom all players in Woodward's current national squad are contracted. The clubs suspect the governing body of plotting to lure those players away from their club deals and have already fired warning shots across the bows of the RFU hierarchy.

Woodward distanced himself from any move to lure Connolly, insisting yesterday that no approach had been made. "I get letters from rugby league agents all the time and if any of the top English-qualified players decided to join union clubs and make themselves available for the national squad, I'd be delighted," he said. "There is not, though, any plan to sign anyone on an RFU contract. We're working with the clubs, not against them."

But David McKnight, Connolly's agent, said: "There is a wide range of options and we have to explore them all. Gary is in a unique position because he is the only league player who would be in with a realistic shout of playing in the rugby union World Cup."

Any signing of Connolly by the RFU would be seen as the first bridgehead in the contractual battle between clubs and country. Talks between the two sides aimed at agreeing a standard player contract to cover both international and domestic rugby have broken down after four months and six sets of draft proposals, and the clubs fear that a big-name signing would encourage the RFU to go after the leading union figures, starting with the national captain, Lawrence Dallaglio.

There are, however, influential figures within the RFU who believe the signing of Connolly would send all the wrong signals to the current batch of England centres and Woodward himself emphasised yesterday: "I'm pretty encouraged by the talent we have coming through and I have to say that we already have strength in depth at the top end."

Should Connolly stay with league, sources in Australia have suggested that Wigan would settle the ARL compensation bill and sign the player on a three-year deal worth more than the pounds 250,000 a year he could make in Australia.