League must counter union's main attraction

Dave Hadfield feels it is not club competition but the prospect of playing in high-profile internationals that is the key reason for rugby league's elite switching codes
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The Independent Online

On the day that Keiron Cunningham plays what could be his last rugby league match for Wales – and Iestyn Harris could already have played his – the code is bracing itself for a continuing battle to keep its best talent.

The match with England at Wrexham tonight – and a moderately low-key affair it is likely to be – is the sum total of Wales's international involvement in the year following their heroics in the 2000 World Cup.

Scotland and Ireland have had one game apiece, with depleted teams in front of small crowds in midweek in France, and Great Britain have not played as an entity since the ill-fated Tri-Nations tournament in Australasia in 1999.

And there, as well as in the pure economic imbalance between the two codes, lies the problem. Quite apart from the big bag of money that rugby union clubs, with the assistance of their governing bodies, can offer players, it is the vibrant international dimension of their sport that is the biggest attraction to league's finest.

The success of Jason Robinson on the Lions' tour has showed what can be achieved by a truly outstanding athlete making the transition. He might have had more fun playing for Wigan than for Sale, but league could offer no substantial counter-attraction to union's big international occasions.

There are those who saw Harris' face when he played for Wales against Lebanon in front of fewer than 1,500 people at Llanelli in the World Cup last November and knew that league had lost him.

The case of Cunningham is subtly different, which is why the Rugby Football League is trying to set up a private sponsorship deal to keep him in the game. There is a logic in what the league is trying to do; it is money from the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union that is greasing the wheels of their clubs when they go after league talent, so why shouldn't the RFL fight back?

The difference – and the irony – is that the Unions have money because their international calendar is so profitable. The RFL has none, partly because its recent, half-baked approach to global competition has lost money, so it now has to try to bring in finance from outside.

Even if this results in the symbolic triumph of retaining Cunningham, who, if some were to be believed, was playing his last match for Saints months ago, how often could it be repeated? You could write a thesis on the reasons, but rugby league does not attract the steady stream of sugar daddies that its rival seems to.

None of that means that league is under threat for its very existence the way that some hysterical commentators suggest. Peter Wheeler's idea that clubs are ready to switch codes is a logistical nonsense, even if that did not stop Leicester from once toying with the idea.

That is not to say that there are not people in rugby league so self-serving that they would flirt with that betrayal as a means of getting their own way.

Wigan's owner, Dave Whelan, can threaten, in his forthright style, to take the club to union, but, even if he could, nobody would watch and he would be hung in effigy from the lamp-posts of Standishgate. The fans are not transferrable, because the more they like their league, the less interested they are in union.

Maurice Lindsay, possibly fearing a revolt, yesterday distanced the club from Whelan's comments. "We have no intention of turning our back on rugby league," the Wigan chairman said. "Dave Whelan has only ever said that if the opportunity came along we would possibly run a rugby union team alongside our rugby league team."

Yes, league will lose Harris, possibly Cunningham, maybe even Kris Radlinski, Wigan's wonderful full-back, who plays for England tonight. But it will not lie down and die or surrender its identity, any more than union did when it lost Jonathan Davies.

Over the past few months, young players on rugby union's famous "hit list" like Kevin Sinfield, Richard Horne and Leon Pryce have committed themselves to league for the forseeable future.

The tier below them, the national Under-18 side, has just won a series in New Zealand for the first time. The talent is there, as rugby union acknowledges by the energy it puts into trying to prise some of it away.

Of course, league does not want to become a training ground for rugby union, but much of the remedy is in its own hands – and it does not always depend on the depth of pockets.

Super League clubs who complain about the dangers of losing players are often the worst culprits in insisting on the primacy of their domestic competition and hobbling representative rugby league through their reluctance to release "their" players.

What is needed is a new realistion that rugby league is in this together; the ones union might want are "our" players and making league as satisfying a career as it can be is a joint responsibility.

The vast majority of league players will always prefer to stay with the game, because it is so much more rewarding to play at club level. It is only the tiny percentage who can virtually be guaranteed a place in a national union team who are being offered anything that they cannot get from the code they have grown up in.

And, as for threats to take clubs off to union, the game should be sufficiently strong-minded to call the bluff.

If anyone tried to make that particular fantasy come true, the backlash would produce a new club in a town like Wigan – hopefully one that could see beyond its own selfish interests.