Converts expose culture of ignorance

The actor-writer and rugby league devotee Colin Welland sees only blinkered prejudice in union's reaction to the new code-breakers
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The Independent Online

Back from a recent trip up the Orinoco, a rugby league enthusiast diving into his morning paper down among the netball and tenpin bowling for any begrudged snippet about his game would have gasped with delight and disbelief. Henry Paul and Iestyn Harris in half-page glory elevated to national celebrity. Had the old code finally made it?

Someone soon put him right. "Sorry mate! They've gone kicky-clappy and been 'discovered'." In Iestyn's case even the much-respected Gerald Davies excitedly declared that Cardiff had "found" something special, a player "on all available evidence of enviable flair!" Evidence, Lord help us... where have you been these last few years, Gerald?

I was at Twickenham for Jason Robinson's "debut". As he beat man after man, par for the course, the Barbours around me chortled with surprise and delight. "He's been doing that for years!'' I protested. "And against damn sight better defences than this.'' But eyes were glazed, the glee self-congratulatory, arrogant and ignorant. To them Jason had appeared from nowhere, stepped down from some Olympus, a ready-made little God. And now Henry and Iestyn are about to be equally deified. After years of suffering neglect and sometimes contempt from so-called rugby aficionados, simply by pulling on a Rah! Rah! Rah! shirt they're suddenly stars in the nation's sporting firmament to be instantly recognised as being up there among the greats.

Of course they deserve all the accolades, all the hype, better late than never. Give or take a rule or two, they are the finished product, primed and polished. In Jason's case, in double quick time he's fixed, established and on everyone's lips. For Paul and Harris it's not even a matter of time. For all three have indeed descended from Olympus, those fields of excellence straddling the M62.

Nobody in league begrudges them their new status. In our eyes they were up there anyway. They are lads who've given so much to the game they were raised in. As individuals they've achieved all they can achieve within its confines. They are ambitious, have families. Naturally they've gravitated towards the cash and to the prospect of their worth finally being nationally recognised.

Back in the days when Scott Gibbs, Jonathan Davies et al followed the trail in reverse, I championed their right to use their God-given gifts to further their lot. Although ostracised and snubbed by many of their peers, they were in some ways more fortunate than our present three. They were going up a notch. Even Gerald admits that on their return they were "visibly different in attitude to their union counterparts'' and that "union in Wales has a vast amount to learn from Harris''. Good on you, Iestyn. After facing Bradford and the like, a go at unpicking Glasgow must have been as jolly as a chuckabout on Blackpool beach. But Scott and Jonathan went to Saints and Widnes, top sides where they were nurtured to be gradually fitter, faster and physically more formidable than ever before.

By contrast, Iestyn is being flung on with the present-day Wales, poor lad. On the other hand, Clive Woodward is probably bring in Paul by the scenic route, the bench. Unlike Graham Henry, he is allowed the luxury of not appearing too eager to recognise his convert's genius. Pity! I can't wait for Stuart Barnes to make another fool of himself as he did by dismissing Robinson's international prospects out of hand.

So good luck to you, lads, you'll be welcome back any time. Enjoy the internationals, for your club experience will be turgid to say the least. Apart from Leicester, maybe, after Odsal and Headingley trotting out in the Zurich championship will be like playing in a tent. Still you can't have the money and everything. And the national press will continue to laud your efforts, even those played before half-empty houses. I doubt if your old mates in the Great Britain squad will receive a tenth of the attention, even when going into battle against the best rugby outfit in the world, the Aussie first team.

After the magnificent domestic play-offs and Grand Final I can't wait. But watch the media. For some mysterious reason they continue to ignore the best when they see it. Or maybe they don't see it. Perhaps their view is shadowed by the pretentious peak of Clive Woodward's cap. But really this weekend there will be no excuse: two confrontations, cheek by jowl, back to back, both against the world's best. Yet open your papers on Monday morning. With the honourable exception of this paper, the Kangaroos will be lucky to get a look-in, and, if they do, a peep will have to suffice around a corner of union's multi-paged adoration.

Why is this? God knows! There's no logic to it except that maybe union is the establishment at play and many sports editors, particularly broadsheet, are of that ilk. Also it has the sole appeal of its wide-ranging international competition. And there are still those who seek to denigrate the 13-a-side game. Even Frank Keating, a much admired old pal, has written off league, seeing it merely as an anachronistic vehicle for professionalism which, with the advent of paid union, is now ready for the scrap-heap.

Sorry, Frank! You don't understand the culture from which it sprang. Our game's formation all those years ago was not just a commercial adventure, it was an act of social revolution, a statement of confidence in a new independent identity.

More and more people, discerning people, are at last beginning to recognise that Super League has evolved into a faster, more skilful, and more exhilarating spectacle. How did Scott Quinnell describe it? "Union with the bad bits taken out!'' It's just a case of somehow breaking Twickers' grip on the various powers that be.

A ray of hope! Guinness has announced its sponsorship of the Kangaroo Tests. Why Guinness! Well, could it be that the marketing director played rugby league for Oxford in an early 90s Varsity match? A sign of things to come? A crack in the edifice? Voices in the right places? New power to the game's elbow? Let's hope so! Then, maybe, our élite will not have to follow that kicky-clappy cash.