Battleground may spread to Britain

Dave Hadfield examines the implications for rugby league around the globe of Rupert Murdoch's breakaway competition
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The Independent Online
Staying abreast of the battle for the future of rugby league in Australia is like following hostilities in the Balkans. No sooner does one skirmish seem to have been resolved, than another breaks out in a place no one has heard of.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the chairman of the Australian Rugby League, Ken Arthurson, emerged from a meeting with Rupert Murdoch's No 2 at News Ltd with a piece of paper which, like Neville Chamberlain's, promised peace in our time.

That accord, such as it was, lasted a matter of days. Now it is clear that Murdoch and his plans for a Super League will not go away, even if they might sometimes pretend to do so. There is no future in appeasement; the ARL is going to have to fight, or watch Murdoch reshape the game according to his own needs.

Murdoch wants a 12-team lite competition, and the ARL believes that three of its existing 20 Winfield Cup clubs have already signed up. The three leading players - Laurie Daley, Bradley Clyde and Ricky Stuart - at one of them, the reigning champions, Canberra Raiders, have certainly signed lucrative individual contracts with the new organisation. The implications of all this, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, are virtually limitless.

Already, the ARL, backed by another major-league media baron, Kerry Packer, whose channel holds television rights to the game into the next century, have offered the players equally tempting deals.

If they still choose to go with the breakaway, however, Arthurson has warned that they will not be selected for interstate or international matches. That would wreck the Test series against New Zealand in June and July and also cast doubt upon what sort of side Australia would be able to field in the Centenary World Cup in October.

Of the top Australian clubs with a major representation in the Test side, only Manly seem certain to stay loyal. As for the potential breakaway clubs, the threat hanging over them is expulsion from the Winfield Cup, not at some remote date in the future, but next week.

Apart from inflicting terminal disruption on the expanded 20-team competition introduced this season, the expulsion of Canberra would surely mean that the World Club Championship, almost certainly against Wigan this June, will be consigned to the "too hard" basket.

That will not be the end of Super League's impact on Britain, however. Showing his matches here on BSkyB is already an explicit part of Murdoch's plans. So is some sort of European playing involvement, but how that would work out is anybody's guess.

If, on the one hand, he is prepared to throw around comparable sums of money to set up a parallel European League, possibly incorporating Jacques Fouroux's adventure in France, it would presumably not be in his interests to syphon off further British talent to Australia. It would, though, push us further in the direction of summer rugby, so that the two seasons coincide.

But if, on the other hand, Super League develops as a one-ring circus based in Australia, with or without some European clubs, then the Australian clubs in it will not be constrained by the transfer ban agreed between the governing bodies of the two countries. It will be open season.

The Rugby League here is tracking developments, and assessing their implications as well as it can from this distance.

"There is potential for a schism in Australia, and, if that were to occur, we would be fools if we thought it would not find its way to the UK," the League's chairman, Rodney Walker, said. "In the event that Murdoch does create a schism, it is inevitable that he will want to talk to us. If we simply sit back and allow him to cherry-pick, there would be the lite and the rest - and we would not control the lite."

The choice of the phrase "cherry-pick" is apposite. The one flash of colour that Britain could add to Murdoch's spectrum is the cherry and white of Wigan. Losing them to an independent, world-wide competition would be one way out of their unhealthy domination of the British game. It is not, however, the most unthinkable consequence of a turbulent immediate future in a game whose drama and action on the field is, for once, being made to look tame by events off it.