Bitter battle that yields only losers

Dave Hadfield in Sydney finds union anxious to avoid the pitfalls of its rival code
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THE battle lines are drawn in both codes of rugby in Australia, but the significant action is taking place off the field and the lines are as jagged as the most inept of defences.

The marathon scrummage for the future control of rugby union - between Rupert Murdoch, who has signed broadcast deals with the major unions in the southern hemisphere, and Kerry Packer, who is trying to launch the World Rugby Corporation - remains unresolved. A meeting of 50 Australian players last week broke up with the decision that they needed another two weeks to make up their minds. That prompted the WRC to threaten to sue players who renege on contracts with them. The WRC also claims to have the majority of New Zealand, Welsh, Scottish and French internationals under contract as well as 180 provincial players in South Africa.

But it has received a few blows to its credibility over the last week. First, Jason Little pledged his loyalty to the Australian Rugby Union; then Josh Kronfeld and Jeff Wilson pledged theirs to the New Zealand Rugby Union (both unions are committed to Murdoch's proposed southern hemisphere competition). And yesterday, the news broke in Johannesburg that Pieter Muller and Christiaan Scholtz had joined fellow Springbok centre Heinrich Fuls in rugby league, Murdoch's proposed Super League, with further high- profile South Africans also set to defect.

In rugby league, the battle between the two media tycoons first broke out in earnest earlier this year. Although the season is reaching what would ordinarily be its climax, there is little interest here in mundane matters such as the destination of the Winfield Cup. The day after that is contested next month, the real fight begins when the clubs who have signed to join the Super League go to court to challenge the validity of the five-year loyalty contracts they had previously agreed with the Australian Rugby League, who have a contract with Packer.

Both sides seem confident of winning the case, and the Super League must win quickly and cleanly if they are to have their competition up and running in time for the 1996 season. Super League have already issued media passes for next season, but that is more of a symbolic gesture than anything. If they do launch, Australia will have two rival leagues running in opposition to each other - something that could hardly be sustainable in the long term.

The battle for survival will then be fought out on some unlikely terrain. For almost 90 years, league has shied away from the challenge of planting a team in Australian Rules territory in Melbourne. Now both Super League and the ARL say that they will have a team each there by 1998, a turn of events that would ensure neither could succeed.

There will be an even more crucial struggle for supremacy in the coal city of Newcastle, 100 miles north of Sydney. The Newcastle Knights, who are well established, thriving and coached by the former Great Britain manager Malcolm Reilly, are firmly committed to the ARL. But Super League are now setting up a local rival, the Hunter Mariners, and most of the Knights' administrative staff have jumped ship to join the new organisation.

Here in Sydney, disillusionment with the whole sorry business is clear. Crowds and TV ratings are down and on one day last week two Sydney newspapers did not carry a word about the actual playing of rugby league - an unprecedented state of affairs. The mess that rugby league has got itself into here is plain for all to see and far from resolved. If a two-week delay helps the leading rugby union players make the right decision in which of the big battalions to join, the game will consider it time well spent.