I subsequently found myself in quite distinguished company. The former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Jopling fighting my Wakefield constituency as a Tory candidate in the 1959 general election was invited to kick off the Wakefield Trinity v Hunslet rugby league match in front of 15,000 local electors. He was subsequently banned from rugby union indefinitely for having 'professionalised' himself.
During the 1980s, following parliamentary pressure and threats to Sports Council funding, the rugby union authorities finally acceded to a 'free gangway' for players between union and amateur rugby league but they retain to this day a rule that automatically bans from their game any player who has been associated with professional rugby league. The numbers affected runs into thousands.
The rule arises from what must by now be one of the longest (and daftest) grievances in history. It was introduced by the rugby union after rugby league began in 1895 and the union establishment refused to sanction 'broken time' payments to industrial workers who lost earnings through taking time off to play rugby.
Nearly a century later, rugby union players are allowed to play professional football, professional cricket and any other professional sport except rugby league. It follows from this that the union rulers' real objection is not payment for sporting prowess, but the playing of the 13-a-side game.
The fact that it is rugby league and not professionalism that causes real offence in the union ranks explains why they retain their discriminatory rules against league players while ignoring the increasing professionalism at the top level of their own game.
The England rugby union captain, Will Carling, only last week blew apart the myth that union players make their cash from off- field activities. He said: 'There is no such thing as non-rugby related earnings as far as I am concerned. Every penny I make is down to who I am and what I have achieved in the game. To suggest otherwise or to turn a blind eye to the fact is sheer hypocrisy.'
If this hypocrisy does not exist at Twickenham then we can expect to see action taken against all those England rugby union players who, according to their own rules, professionalised themselves by playing in the recent South African tour match against a Natal side on pounds 800 a man. We can expect to see a long overdue response from the Welsh Rugby Union to the contents of the Pugh report which detailed payments to Welsh players making an earlier South African tour. We can expect to see libel action taken against those newspapers who detailed the payments made to Scottish Rugby Union internationals involved in the last Five Nations' Championship. Somehow I think we won't.
Anyone with even a limited knowledge of contemporary rugby union at the top level recognises that the principle of amateurism retains as much validity as Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. But it is kept in the rules to lend respectability to a long-standing and deeply held prejudice against another sport.
While rugby union was spread across the world by the British armed forces, such prejudice prevented our soldiers, sailors and airmen playing rugby league until, following much parliamentary pressure, the Government finally forced through recognition of the sport in the forces a few weeks ago.
Having beaten the old-school- tie brigade on that one, there is a growing cross-party lobby in the Commons and Lords that believes we can no longer allow the blatant and bigoted discrimination by one lawful sport against another.
The former Castleford player Ian Birkby, who has been prevented from playing socially for a Cheshire rugby union club, summed it up well last week: 'Since I finished playing rugby league, apartheid has ended, the Iron Curtain has come down and the Israelis have given up the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians. But I still can't play rugby on a Saturday afternoon.'
Next year sees the centenary of rugby league, an appropriate time to end this nonsense once and for all. If the rugby union authorities won't end it themselves, then others will have to do it for them.Reuse content