High stakes on pride in prejudice

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The Independent Online
W illiam Webb Ellis and Eddie Waring are having a sporting celestial wager on the outcome. Bath versus Wigan may be a commercial gimmick, but will those who are interested in the result please raise their hands? Thought so. Just in case you missed it, a forest of arms shot up throughout the country.

The two matches, scheduled for May between the great clubs, will confirm or destroy prejudices that have existed for 100 years and help to solve one of the world's most intriguing arguments:who has the better game and the best players, union or league? However, this is not simply a question of sport. This is north v south, meat pie v casserole, donkey jacket v Barbour, whippet v labrador, cloth cap v baseball cap (reversed), the prosaic v double-barrelled names, the Rovers Return v the Queen Vic.

The first match will be played in the north under league laws, the second, possibly at Twickenham, under union laws. The bookmakers' odds reflect the view that neither side will be beaten at their own game.

Webb Ellis, debating the prospect with Waring in the great studio in the sky (note the lower case "s"), is not so sure. "Bath will have less of a problem adjusting to playing with 13 men than Wigan will with 15. They are, of course, two totally different games but Bath have the all- round skills to pose problems for Wigan."

Waring: "Bath..."

Webb Ellis: "If I could stop you just there, Eddie. Let us get this right. It's not pronounced Bath as in Cath or math. It's Bath as in Darth or hearth. A bath was something that Albert Finney used in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning to cleanse himself of the factory grime."

Waring: "Thank you for the elocution lesson, William, but as I was saying, that poncy outfit from the Georgian city will be hopelessly exposed when they play the real man's game. For a start the league boys are faster, fitter and stronger and far more adept at using the short-arm tackle. You don't have to believe me. Just ask Jonathan Davies."

Webb Ellis: "I thought you'd reduce it to a meaningless mash of macho mediocrity. That, by the way Eddie, is alliteration, something you might have employed on Grandstand instead of getting all excited over an up and under. Union has far more variety and subtlety and for that reason will be able to adapt better to league than Wigan will to the 15-man game."

Waring: "You don't understand. We are better at tackling, handling and kicking. Bath (as in Cath) will be taken to the cleaners. Jeremy Guscott? We'll have him for breakfast with some black pudding. Your southern nancy boys won't begin to comprehend the tackle rule. They won't even understand the referee's signals."

Webb Ellis: "Let me put it this way. Whereas Bath have all the skills necessary to give Wigan a game at league, Wigan do not stand an earthly chance of competing in union. Take the line-out. It is now the most important source of possession and as your game doesn't have any Bath will clean you out. The same applies to rucks and mauls. As for the scrummage, yours are a complete shambles and when push comes to shove Bath will drive you all over Twickers."

Waring: "Dream on, Bill. You seem to forget that whereas some of our lads have played union, none of yours have a clue about league. We have forwards who can play like backs. Compared to our athletes, you have forwards who look as if they're going backwards."

Webb Ellis: "Athletes? Don't make me laugh. What you seem to forget is that I started this beautiful game by running with the ball at Rugby School. All you've done is bastardise the original for the sake of a bit of brass and that, Eddie, is pronounced brarse as in silly arse, which is something you'd know all about. The point is, league found it necessary to poach our best players because you couldn't produce your own."

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," interrupted the chairman, Barrington Dalby, "let us not get personal. I'd like to widen the debate. Is it time for demarcation lines in sport to be erased? William?"

Webb Ellis: "There are only a handful of sports in which this can happen, rugby being one. I would like to have seen Ian Botham swing a baseball bat in Dodger Stadium and Babe Ruth facing Harold Larwood at Lord's. Similarly I would like to see how Jonah Lomu would get on in American Football and Emmitt Smith playing stand-off for the Eagles against the All Blacks. I wonder if he would be as effective without all that body armour? I wonder how the baseball catcher would get on in the slips without that big glove?"

Waring: "Who on earth is Emmitt Smith? As for Jonah Lomu, 'appen he wouldn't have lived with Billy Boston. North is north and south is south and I'm just glad the twain shall meet so I can relieve William of his pocket money."