One game's pride is another's prejudice

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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY bereft of it in their own country, the South African Rugby Union have had to rely on Britain to remind them of how acrid apartheid smells when even just a mild whiff of it hits your nostrils. It was hardly the real thing, but the fate that befell Ray Mordt last week was further evidence that discrimination has deeper roots in rugby than in almost all other of its manifestations in our lifetime.

It was not the first time last week that rugby union bared its teeth at rugby league - 'essentially parasitic', one leading union figure called the rival code - and the league were provoked into responding to what they see as an attempt to prevent their expansion.

The Mordt affair was a bizarre example of history reversing itself. British union officials objected to his presence as a minor member of the coaching staff in the South African party to tour Wales and Scotland next month. Mordt played league on the wing for Wigan in 1985. He has been allowed back into union as a coach and yet Britain have insisted that his reinstatement does not apply at international level and have forced his exclusion from the tour.

Many will immediately recognise the resemblance to Basil D'Oliveira's rejection by South Africa when he was named in the England cricket touring party of 1968. England promptly and properly refused to go and the boycott of South African sport was sealed. Although D'Oliveira's experience had a seriousness that could never be compared with Mordt's, both will go into history as victims of colour prejudice. While the objection to D'Oliveira was founded on the colour of his skin, Mordt offended by the colour of money.

As everyone knows, the cash earned by league players is of a far more grubby and distasteful hue than the cash earned by union men. 'We've got to operate within the spirit of the International Board rules,' explained Bob Weighill, the home unions' secretary. That spirit has yet to move the IB to take action against the Australians for permitting former league players to revert to playing union. This is because Australia, where relationships between union and league are the better for not being based on fear and loathing, would put up more of a fight than South Africa who dare not jeopardise their position as hosts for next year's World Cup. Their vulnerability offered our brave boys a cheap hit.

Had they been more serious about the preservation of the amateur ethic, the British might have asked South Africa if any of their players received payment, as England players discovered on their summer tour. But, then, South Africa might ask if any of our players get paid.

Professionalism in rugby union is no longer an issue worth debating, which brings us to the reason for so much anger at rugby league headquarters. An article in last week's Sunday Times by Stephen Jones challenged the effectiveness of the Private Member's Bill now being steered through Parliament by David Hinchliffe MP, which attempts to rid us of the sort of discrimination the union game imposes on league players.

Worthy as it is, the Bill has little chance of success in a Commons agenda packed with higher priorities. Jones, not unreasonably, feels it is doomed anyway because the age-old battle has changed its nature. No longer does union defend itself on the grounds of preserving its amateurism. Instead it sees the ban on returning players as essential to the protection of its game.

Vernon Pugh, chairman of both the Welsh Rugby Union and the International Board, is quoted as saying: 'If a free gangway were set up it would lead to world-wide chaos in the game. You would find league clubs, who are essentially parasitic, offering modest sums to young players in the knowledge they could return to union if things didn't work out.'

Considering the inferior fitness of the senior union players who turn pro, the league would be doing the union a favour by such actions but the idea is dismissed as 'arrant nonsense' in a letter the league has sent to the newspaper. It points out that the percentage of players signed from union is small; most are produced from league's 1,500 amateur clubs and an increasing number from the professional clubs' Under-19 teams.

What is more pertinent, it says, is the way that union regulations hamper development, particularly in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Many union players want to try amateur rugby league but if they happen to play alongside former professionals, such as Rob Ackerman, now playing amateur league in Cardiff, they will be banned from union despite not having earned a penny.

This, say the league, is why they want the discrimination to end, not because of converts who want to return to union - what benefit would that be to league? - but to 'prevent rugby union exercising a pernicious influence to prevent the expansion of another sport'.

The most ridiculous of the union claims is that a free gangway would present league with a transfusion of glamorous players, as if half the England team would immediately defect. I suspect they might feel better off where they are, without the undoubted risk to their reputations. It would be the league who would be likely to suffer the defections, although a straw poll among recent converts suggests that the only freedom most of them are seeking is the right to play social rugby when their professional days are over.

Even considering the differences between the codes, I would guess that more league men would get a place in our union international teams than vice versa. This applies particularly to Wales, who have lost at least six who would be certain to claim a place in the next game. And while there are several England union men who would win league places at club level, I fancy that players like Martin Offiah, Jason Robinson, Paul Newlove and Gary Connolly would be difficult to keep out of England's union team.

All hypothetical, of course, and no matter what the players or the supporters may think, a century of bitter prejudice will dictate that it remains so until the force of honesty finally wins the day.

McDONALD'S will set up six of their fast-food spots at the Olympic Village in Atlanta for the 1996 Games, dispensing burgers, etc, free to the 15,000 competitors, coaches and officials around the clock. McDonald's have also paid pounds 38m to be exclusive restaurant advertisers on American television during Games transmissions and will back up this with a marketing blitz.

They announced these treats last week with the help of five Olympic stars. 'I like the double cheeseburger with mustard,' enthused the heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Coca-Cola will also feature prominently in this quadriennial tribute to the world's healthiest and fittest bodies.

Solomon Wariso might not be able to take advantage. The British sprinter last week had confirmation of his three-month ban for inadvertently taking a banned substance contained in a tonic. He may not now be allowed to go the Olympics. Quite right, too. How could you allow a boy like that to degrade this great event.