Meeting of strangers

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RUGBY POLITICS Enemies with a century of animosity behind them met on an official level for the first time yesterday, without blood flowing down the corridors of the East India Club in London.

The top brass of rugby league and rugby union, strangers to each other since the split between the codes in 1895, got together in London and, if there was little concrete progress towards any rapprochement, at least a good time was had by all.

The chairman of the Rugby Football League, Rodney Walker, who attended along with the League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, said: "It was very much a social occasion. We talked over a wide range of subjects of interest to both of us.

"But there were no negotiations that were intended to lead to anything other than establishing a relationship."

The League officials went into the meeting with Vernon Pugh and Keith Rowlands, chairman and secretary of the Rugby Football Union's International Board, "blind", as it was at the union men's instigation and there was no advance agenda.

Some of the wilder suggestions of what might be on offer included a unified game or a free gangway between the two codes, regardless of any argument over who is and who is not a professional. If such matters were discussed, however, it was only in theoretical terms.

Certainly Pugh was reserved in his comments after the meeting, giving nothing of detail away about the discussions. "For public consumption all I can say is what we agreed,that we would not make a statement and that each of us would report back to our respective bodies."

Walker clearly did not feel that he was bound to silence and was considerably more forthcoming about the nature of the meeting and topics that it touched upon.

"There was no ulterior motive behind the invitation and no proposals put to us," Walker said. "Their welcome was warm and their company was most enjoyable," he added - something that the pariahs have hardly been able to say about the Establishment's attitude towards them over the previous 100 years of separate development.

"We both thought that it was time to talk to each other directly, instead of through the media."

When it is time to talk seriously about the relationship between the two games, league will hope that complete freedom of movement between the two codes is the outcome.

"It has dangers, but the advantages outweigh them," says Lindsay, who would be quite prepared to accept a system under which a player signed from rugby union could return to it after a league career.

The attitude of league clubs who have paid out large signing-on fees might not be quite so relaxed but, at official level, league favours all the barriers coming down.

It will take more than a pleasant lunch to produce that result, although the continuing dialogue might produce less spectacular breakthroughs, like senior clubs in the two codes sharing grounds and facilities.

"We agreed to keep in touch," said Walker, who is also chairman of the Sports Council. "They felt, and we were delighted to agree, that it was time that the two bodies actually spoke to each other like civilised human beings, and I'm sure that we will continue to do so."

While the ravens might not have left the Tower of London, or even the East India Club, that is considerable progress after 100 years of pecking at each other's eyes.