A game to be proud of

Chris Rea applauds the attack of Leicester and the defence of the union
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The Independent Online
LEICESTER'S victory at Welford Road last week meant that they are unbeaten in all their matches at every level against Bath this season: a remarkable achievement against a club where the bright green shoots are to be found in greater profusion than anywhere else. Equally important has been the psychological effect of the result on the reigning champions, coming so soon after their defeat by Wasps. The myth of impenetrability surrounding Bath has been exploded.

It will be intriguing to see how Bath cope with this sudden reversal of fortune. It is to be hoped that their considered reaction is more gracious than their reflex response last Saturday. Victor Ubogu's foolish posturing in front of the referee, a packed house and the TV cameras, and his sharp exit afterwards, to say nothing of his profligacy in conceding so many penalties, merit some form of internal discipline.

That he and a number of others escaped more severe censure on the day was the one blight on a memorable afternoon. We have seen enough in other sports to recognise the correlation between insolence and intimidation on the field and violence off it.

Bath are much too good a club to be tainted by such tomfoolery and indiscipline. Having for so long basked in the adoration of their passionately committed support and having enjoyed the admiration and respect of the rugby public, they should now find it in their hearts to be generous in defeat. Their second-half response to Leicester's onslaught was noble and stirring, and bodes well for the future. "Like all good sides," Tony Russ, Leicester's director of rugby, said, "it has been Bath's ability to achieve consistency, not so much in form but in results."

Indeed, without that quality Bath would now be languishing in mid-table. But it is this consistency which Leicester have yet to match. They have taken seven points out of eight this season from Bath and Wasps yet have fallen against lesser sides such as Gloucester.

They have a tight five of formidable power and energy. Against Bath, Graham Rowntree, his stamping indiscretion apart, gave a virtuoso display as a modern prop-forward and Matt Poole, possessing the physique of a forward but the mentality of a back, has surely never combined the two to better effect. Yet Leicester's greatest strength can also, on occasions, be their most serious weakness in that so much of their game has been constructed around set-piece, rucks and, more especially, mauls so their growth behind the scrum has tended to be stunted.

If Leicester are to reach the level of consistency achieved by Bath and compete successfully in Europe, where the club game is heading, they need to strengthen their squad. It may be that they are not yet strong enough this season to overcome the sacrifices they must make in the national cause. Five of their World Cup squad will be missing from the final League match against Bristol, where defeat could deny them the title. But whatever the final outcome, nothing will diminish the memory of last week's victory over Bath. It was a match of which rugby can be proud in a game which the Rugby Football Union is doing its utmost to defend against plunder by its parasitic cousin.

One of the principal props in the argument advanced by the inappropriately titled National Heritage Committee is rugby union's discrimination against rugby league players who wish to return to the fold. They contrast this with the attitude to players from other professional sports who are given immediate and unrestricted access to the game. But it is precisely because rugby league, unlike other sports, actively seeks to lure union players away from the game that union has a right and a duty to protect itself. The statistic that only 8.1 per cent of the players signed by professional league clubs in the past 10 years came from union, could be interpreted as confirmation that the restrictions imposed by union are working.

But that is not what the committee wanted to hear and they have sought to use this evidence to strengthen their case against union. The exquisite irony of the committee's demands that the "apartheid" being operated by rugby union at the very time when mass discrimination is being practised within rugby league's own ranks by Murdoch's mercenaries, has surely not escaped even these opportunists.

If ever there was an argument for the preservation of amateurism, it is to be found in the sell-out of rugby league. This lobby is not, of course, about discrimination but about money and the game having to pay an increasingly high price to feed its expensive habit. As for the National Heritage Committee and its pre-judged findings, they are a national joke. The only worry is that rugby union will be daft enough to take them seriously.