Lydon craves a clash not a union

Paul Trow discovers why Wigan prefer entertainment to creating history
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The Independent Online
The great schism which has divided rugby for more than a century will be bridged at Maine Road on Wednesday night when Wigan take on union's premier side, Bath, under league rules. It could be history in the making, but the main concern for Joe Lydon, Wigan's manager, is that his players and the crowd have fun.

To the marketing men, this game and the return fixture under union laws at Twickenham on 25 May confirm that diplomatic relations are fully restored between the two sports. In rugby terms, though, the contests are of strictly novelty value only.

"The interest has been phenomenal - we've even had a booking for 30 tickets from France," said Lydon. "Our hiccup in the Challenge Cup, when we lost to Salford, deprived our fans of their annual trip to Wembley. Many of them see going to Twickenham as compensation."

The onset of professionalism in union may have opened a gangway between the codes, but the Bath-Wigan exchanges are more likely to emphasise just how different the sports have become during their estrangement.

"Preparing for the union match has been a real learning curve for all our players," said Lydon. "We've had a lot of help from our neighbours Orrell, whose coach, Peter Williams, is a good friend. We've trained at their ground and played three mock-up games against them which were refereed by the former England wing Mike Slemen. They were stop-start affairs with Mike blowing up every now and then to explain where we were going wrong. The technical side of rugby union is so difficult - league is much easier to grasp."

Four Wigan players, Martin Offiah, Inga Tuigamala, Scott Quinnell and Shem Tatupu, made their names in union, and the Twickenham game has particular significance for Quinnell due to the pounds 200,000, three-year contract he has reportedly been offered to join Richmond. But the 23-year-old former Wales No 8 claimed last week that he had had no thoughts about going back to rugby union. "I'm contracted to Wigan for another two years, and that is all I'm thinking about." In theory, Quinnell could play for Richmond (and even Wales) next winter and return to the Super League the following summer, but it would be surprising if the Lions rugby tour to South Africa in 12 months' time was not a factor in his plans.

"Our players are contracted to us, and we wouldn't want our valuable assets going off and getting injured without being properly compensated," said Lydon. "But I can see some guys playing both codes. You're only in this game for a short while, and you want to make as much money as you can. On the other hand, I used to play in the southern hemisphere during the close season, and after a few years I found it very hard to stay sharp physically or mentally. If it happens, it will shorten a few careers. These days, if you manage to play at the top for 10 years in league alone you have done very well."

Tuigamala, for one, is unenthusiastic about returning to his roots. "Playing on the wing in union is boring," said the former All Black. "You're lucky if you see the ball at all, whereas in league you're involved the whole time. I don't know if playing all year round is a good idea anyway. It's a short career, and your body is your asset. You have to be smart and plan for the future."

Meanwhile, Wigan will have a dummy run at Twickenham on Saturday in the Middlesex Sevens. "We've probably got a better chance of competing effectively in the Sevens, but what we really want to do, both next weekend and against Bath, is entertain the crowd and enjoy ourselves," said Lydon. "Being entertaining is the highest priority for professional sport. The people who pump in the money - television, sponsors and spectators - will eventually go away if it's not attractive to watch. They realise this in the southern hemisphere. They encouraged sides to score more tries in the Super-12, and it's been far better to watch than the Five Nations. It's great to see teams from South Africa and New Zealand, where they can play a very technical game, trying to be more expansive."

Lydon is not convinced by the marketing men's dream that the two rugbys will ultimately merge. "I think there will always be room for both sports," he said. "But I suppose if you had four or five so-called superclubs in each code who are far better than everyone else then you might get a modified version of both games."

Diehards may cringe, but the poster advertising Wednesday's event captures precisely the prevailing mixed mood of excitement and uncertainty. "100 years of tradition on the line - what will be the outcome - book now."

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