Old wounds and diehards

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TWO weeks ago, our rugby writers Chris Rea and Clem Thomas, with a little help from Jonathan Davies, examined the case for an armistice in the century-old conflict between union and league under the heading 'Now is the hour to end rugby's cold war'. They've been dodging the bullets ever since.

Last week we devoted half a page to printing a small proportion of the fusilade of letters we received and they have still been pinging in over the last few days. For instance, R. E. Chapple of Chalford in Gloucestershire welcomed Chris Rea's 'initiative' but asked if it might help the situation if, on his BBC programme Rugby Special on Sunday, Chris were to include at least the results of that afternoon's rugby league matches.

Not very fair, Mr Chapple. A few years ago Rugby Special featured an interview with the Wigan wonder Martin Offiah and received a right roasting from the Rugby Football Union for having a league player on their programme. The future choice of channels for televised union is at too delicate a stage for anyone to take liberties.

This is not an attitude we should be surprised at from a game that only last week refused permission for Ian Birkby to play rugby union for Wilmslow at the age of 31, and five years after playing his last professional rugby league match. It so happens that the International Rugby Board have relaxed the rules for former league players who had never played union and thus had not voluntarily changed codes. Birkby had played union as a schoolboy so he remains barred from even a run-out in the stiffs.

He could always take them to court but the board have already signified their determination to fight any legal challenge, a warning aimed directly at Welsh prop Stuart Evans, who finished playing for St Helens three years ago and is trying without success to get into union. If he takes the fight to the beaks, he will be taking on the entire rugby union world.

Evans recently played a couple of clandestine games for his local pub team. They have been suspended by the WRU for two weeks. 'They're getting soft,' scoffed a friend who is a union stalwart. 'They used to ban the opposition, too, for playing on the same pitch.'

It was the recognition that this nonsense must sooner or later be swept away that prompted the Independent on Sunday to devote so much space to a study of what might or should happen to the world of rugby. Much of the reader response was welcoming and constructive but a sizeable amount revealed what I have noticed from my more modest forays into that area.

The most savage reaction comes not from crusty gents in the Twickenham area but from league diehards. They must be sport's most touchy supporters and although they may be entitled to testiness after decades of southern cold, the debate deserves more than a comparison of crowd figures and a bragging about our game being better than their game.

Our feature was primarily concerned with prospecting a future in which players would have the basic human right to move freely between the two codes at all levels. From that situation is likely to evolve a gradual merging of the games. They've both made, and are still making, so many changes since the split of 1895 that this is by no means a wild theory.

It was a shame that we did not have the space to carry the views of Martyn Sadler, a university lecturer and editor of the League Express, who wrote at length about the subject and not always kindly about Rea's and Thomas's views. But he believes that the financial needs of the big union clubs will inevitably bring the game closer to league, that those clubs will break the hold of Twickenham and we will see a process not unlike that of 1895. 'By the year 2005, I would be surprised if Bath weren't in the same league as Wigan, playing a game that looked more territorial than either game looks now.'

It is fascinating what visions appear when you give the crystal ball a rub.

WHILE on the subject of professionals and amateurs, part of the nasty spat that has developed between the Professional Footballers' Association and the Football Association over the past few days is the claim by the PFA's chief executive Gordon Taylor that there's an 'amateur ethos' to English coaching.

'It is a scandal that so few former players have been employed by the FA to teach skills and excellence,' says Taylor, adding that it took just a week to obtain a preliminary FA coaching badge and two weeks for a full badge. In Italy it is six months and in Germany a year.

Taylor makes a good point. I've long suspected that the FA coaching staff have a prejudice against the pros, which makes no sense at all when so many could make valuable impressions on youngsters. But is Taylor right when he criticises the FA for the lack of skill and technique in our players at the highest level?

Surely the clubs should carry the bulk of the blame for that. They get them when they're young enough. And is there no individual responsibility to be attached to the players? Extremely well-paid young men complaining of a lack of coaching are not likely to get sympathy. It may be a team game but there are personal skills that can be developed and practised.

English players are renowned for their determination, physical strength and speed on the field. They don't appear to be very busy off it.

WHEN a Welsh rugby forward appeared in court last week on a wounding charge after a fracas in a pub car park, the prosecutor alleged: 'Sadly his conduct fell far below the standard of gentlemanly conduct one associates with the game of rugby.' I don't know what standards those are, but the jury felt able to acquit him.