League queues up to sign the code-breakers

An exodus of union's finest talents is being widely - and wildly - predicted.
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The game within the game in South Africa lies in predicting who, before the divots have been replaced at Ellis Park, is destined for rugby league.

The World Cup has been watched closely by men from the other code with money to spend. Where union is worrying unnecessarily is in the numbers it fears it might lose; even in an era of Murdoch-fuelled bidding and counter-bidding, there is only a relatively small elite of players worth snaring.

Overshadowing the whole market, of course, is the massive figure of Jonah Lomu. The warring factions in rugby league are unanimous on one thing; Lomu is head and shoulders above his contemporaries - in every way.

Despite the efforts of the New Zealand Rugby Union to protect their crown jewel, much of the groundwork for his departure has already been done. The Auckland Warriors have had a hand-shake first option for more than a year but leading clubs in Britain and Australia will be trying to top their bid.

When a go-between got through the cordon surrounding Lomu earlier in the World Cup to make a definite offer of pounds 1m however, it was not on behalf of Canberra or Wigan but of Sheffield Eagles.

Union's bete noire, Mike Burton - for it was he - might seem to be representing unlikely candidates, but the logic of Sheffield's bid is strong.

They have over pounds 1m of Murdoch's money on its way to them for their first Super League season and unlike other British clubs have neither debts to pay off nor a ground in need of repair. "What we need is someone who can fill our stadium. Lomu is the only player in the world who could do that," says Sheffield's chairman, Gary Hetherington.

Sheffield are due to find out after the final whether their bid has been successful. Their main British rivals are Wigan, who were offered Lomu for what now seems a bargain pounds 600,000 before the world realised how good he was, and who have the advantage of having his close friend, Va'aiga Tuigamala, on their books.

One impression to emerge from Burton's clandestine chat with the big man is that he would rather play in Britain than Australia. The likelihood remains, however, that he would rather play in Auckland than either.

In a sense, league would be merely reclaiming its own. Lomu played the game until he was 13 and, as a Polynesian in Auckland, is certain to have numerous friends who still do.

There is much league flavour in the whole New Zealand side, in fact. Jack Rowell, the England manager, made the stunning admission after England's semi-final defeat that they had lost because New Zealand had played "a rugby league-type game".

In other words, the All Blacks run with a view to breaking tackles and passing to men in support, rather than with the idea of being tackled and setting up second-phase possession. The best of them are already playing league in a different setting.

Marc Ellis appears destined for the Sydney Bulldogs, who will then be able to field an all-New Zealand back line, whilst there is little doubt about the adaptability of Frank Bunce and Walter Little or the potential of newcomers like Gary Osborne and Andrew Mehrtens.

After Lomu, though, the prize would be Josh Kronfeld, who would be a superb league second-row.

Despite a lot of wild talk about wholly unsuitable players, Kronfeld is likely to be one of only a handful of forwards to attract serious offers.

Another is Neil Back, a classic case of "right man, wrong game" who will always be held back in union by his lack of sheer size, but who could be a splendidly mobile and energetic back-rower in league. If Sheffield fail to entice Lomu, they will be eager to spend part of their million on him.

Another forward to impress league judges is Western Samoa's Junior Paramore. There is more concern about mass defections from Samoa than from any other country, with the wingers, George Harder and Brian Lima, already earmarked for Australia.

As for the host country, attention has been concentrated on their scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen. Scrum-halves have a poor success-rate when switching codes, but the need for a star name to bolster the Murdoch-enlisted South African Rugby League is very great.

That would be a dreadful blow for union in South Africa, but perhaps not as bad as Chester Williams tiring of life as a cross between a national symbol and a national curiosity and opting for a game where he could simply concentrate on being a very good winger.

Australia provide an example of how market values can plummet, with the stock of such as Tim Horan, Jason Little and George Gregan all declining rapidly.

The ultimate nightmare for league people is that David Campese, so often openly contemptous of the code but so comically ill-equipped defensively for it, might cash in his chips and take an offer based on the propaganda value of his name.

It is to be hoped that the likelihood that it would bring him into contact with Lomu will dissuade him.


1 Jonah Lomu

2 Jonah Lomu

3 Jonah Lomu

4 Josh Kronfeld

5 Marc Ellis

6 Joost van der Westhuizen

7 Neil Back

8 Frank Bunce

9 Junior Paramore

10 Neil Jenkins

Will Carling: Too slow, too predictable, too full of Quorn and managementspeak

Jeremy Guscott: Has left it too late and has lost his spark

Rob Andrew: Unless league introduces specialist kickers

David Campese: A parody of his old, strutting self

Zinzan Brooke: Would have been great four years ago but worn out now