`Northern' code conquers the veld

The Lions' successes in South Africa owe much to those players with a rugby league past, says Dave Hadfield
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The Independent Online
If followers of rugby league in Britain can draw any comfort from global events over the past couple of weeks, it is that union's successes in South Africa owe much to the other code.

While European Super League clubs have been losing heavily in the World Club Championship, players who could have been involved in that competition have instead been sharing the Lions' euphoria in Cape Town.

Take Alan Tait, for instance. Oh, sorry, you already have. The scorer of the clinching try in the first Test at Newlands spent most of last season playing league in Leeds' reserve side, not considered good enough for a first team which won only six Super League matches all year. Either standards in league and union are even further apart than those in Australian and British Super Leagues, or something remarkable has happened to him since.

He was always a handsome attacking full-back in league, but Leeds supporters will have smirked at paeans from the tour to his pace and defensive soundness, remembering not just Martin Offiah at Wembley but lesser mortals at more obscure venues standing him up.

Tait's last league coach, in the stiffs at Headingley, was Paul Fletcher, now in charge of Bramley. "He had a toe injury and an operation and he struggled with his form," he recalled. "Then in the back of his mind was the idea that his future lay elsewhere, so his commitment wasn't quite there. He always had flair, though, and I'm delighted for the way it's gone for him."

Then there is Scott Gibbs, that itchy-footed individual whose motto should surely be: "How green is the grass in the next valley?"

St Helens would have loved to keep him, but they knew that they had no chance of doing so once he decided on a change of direction back to union. Significantly, they have retained his rugby league registration in case of another change of mind and there was even a serious suggestion that he might make a one-match return to Saints to play at Wembley.

Gibbs' suspension for throwing a punch has given even those who acknowledge the extra dimension that experience in league has given the Lions the chance for some counter-propaganda. He must have learned such tricks - unknown in the 15-a-side game - "Up North".

I can assure you that he knew how to throw the occasional punch long before he ever pulled on a Saints jersey. And, although he ran and tackled from the start of his league career like a small bull, he also knew how to miss the odd one through faulty positioning. As we saw on Saturday, when he slipped off Gary Teichmann, he has not lost that trait.

John Bentley is a different case from either Tait or Gibbs. He is still a contracted player with Halifax - although you would hardly know it - and merely on loan to Newcastle and the Lions.

Halifax were glad enough to have the money in return for his services and it is a moot point whether his presence on the field in Australia, rather than prowling the touchline in Cape Town, would have made much difference to an embarrassing series of hammerings. The evidence from South Africa, though, is that he might have bolstered battered team spirits.

Allan Bateman proved his credentials as a league man by holding down a first-team place at Cronulla, now one of Australia's more impressive sides in the WCC. Like him, David Young could have been in the Lions' first Test team, and Scott Quinnell - on whom Wigan worked so hard and productively - surely would have been if fit.

It adds up to a significant contribution from a rival code which cannot, on its recent showing, afford to be quite so generous. Apart from the loss of some worthwhile man-power, the union alternative makes it fiendishly difficult to impose a salary cap in league.

But that is league's problem, not rugby union's. In the meantime, if they run short of candidates for international immortality, I understand there are some useful lads running around in Leeds' A team.

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