The League lesson: Success will not have a code-breaking effect

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The Independent Online

On the face of it, last weekend was just about as bad as it gets for rugby league. A matter of hours after England won rugby union's World Cup, Great Britain slid to their third successive frustrating late defeat by Australia, completing the first Ashes whitewash since 1986.

With the nation celebrating events in Sydney, league could have been excused for feeling sorry for itself - but that is not the prevailing mood in the game.

"We've got to look at it positively," says Brian Foley, who, as Wigan's youth development manager, has brought some of the best talent into the game. "The World Cup win will attract more lads to rugby and then they will decide for themselves which is the more attractive game to play.

"When they do that, league has many advan-tages. When people say that union is more technical, I don't accept that, because league involves great skills. But it is simpler, with fewer complex rules."

Foley admits that league needs to sharpen its image if it is to capitalise on the World Cup. "People have seen their players conduc-ting themselves properly and they have been saying that they are bored with the antics of footballers. But we have something nobody else has - the game. I've got great belief in it. Just ask university students who play both which they prefer."

The League's development executive, Gary Tasker, is equally upbeat when he looks at the broader picture. "It creates opportunities for the oval ball in general," he says. "We've got a great product and our numbers are up everywhere."

The St Helens coach, Ian Millward, acknowledges that a British win in the Ashes series would have helped to keep the code in the public eye during the inevitable World Cup celebrations.

"It wouldn't have been as big as the World Cup, but it would have propelled league forward as well," he says. "But I still think it's a positive for league, because it just increases the awareness that there's another-shaped ball out there."

As the chief executive of the Leeds Tykes as well as the Leeds Rhinos, Gary Hetherington has a foot in both camps and he also sees a mutual benefit. "Rugby union's competition is not rugby league - it's soccer," he argues. "Rugby league's competition is not rugby union - it's soccer. Both codes are showing growth and both can take a bigger share of the nation's attention.

"The two sports are showing signs of coming together from a marketing point of view and I think there's quite a lot more they can do together at governing body level." Despite the national league side's relative lack of success, he can only see the game moving onwards and upwards. "A win at Huddersfield would have been a great statement, but if more kids play rugby then league will benefit.

"League is now available throughout the country, and in a place like Leeds there are more playing the game than at any other time since the 1950s."

The RFL's marketing chief, Chris Green, who chases the sponsors' and spectators' poundfor the code, says: "I don't believe we'll lose one fan to union. It's more likely that there will be more people attracted to rugby in general." But what about union's already enviable allure for business? "The Rugby Union will be able to generate even more revenue and charge higher prices for its properties," Green says. "But what will happen is that people will look around for better value - and we offer that."

There is a bullishness within league, a firm belief that the game offers something which union cannot. "The World Cup final was like watching the Eton Wall Game," said one officer, who preferred not to be named for fear of sounding sour. "It was just men jumping on top of each other, and I can't understand anyone preferring it to the spectacle of league."

And, as someone else pointed out, the only tries in the World Cup final were scored by former league players - Jason Robinson and Lote Tuqiri - past defences coached by former rugby league men - Phil Larder and John Muggleton. There must be a moral in there somewhere.