Paul set to be part of the union

Dave Hadfield on imported league talent likely to make an impact
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The English rugby union season opens today with the promise of the biggest influx of new talent it has ever seen, largely thanks to that which it has begged, stolen, borrowed and bought from the code it has shunned for the past hundred years.

If club rugby union looks better this season, it will be because it is liberally studded with players who have honed their craft elsewhere. The world of rugby is suddenly upside down.

The incomers from league fall into two categories: the permanent transfers, often former union players who have failed to make it, and the loan rangers, often high-grade, born-and-bred league men, who are thought to have what it takes to cross over.

These are the new, hybrid breed of year-round rugby code-breakers - and how they will fare over the next 12 months will be the most intriguing running story in both codes of rugby.

Take the case of Henry Paul. No boy growing up in Auckland could be unaware of rugby union, but league was always his game - the one that took him into the Junior Kiwis and into contracts with Wakefield Trinity and, a year later, Wigan.

While Paul was playing league, his astonishing skill and flair were a partially kept secret. Once he had played for Wigan against Bath and in the Middlesex Sevens, the word was out. Bath wanted him for the winter, Paul wanted to go, Wigan had no objection and nor - despite some initial tough talking - did the Rugby League.

So when Wigan's season ends, be it today or in the Premiership final next Sunday, Paul will decamp to the house in Bath for which he was negotiating last week and take up well-paid, temporary employment as a rugby union player.

"The chance to earn money is a factor, of course," he says. "But the main thing is the chance to do something that nobody has done before - as a real rugby league player playing rugby union.

"It's a risky thing I'm doing. Rugby union isn't an easy game; if it was everyone would do it."

There are plenty of people in rugby league who wish that Paul was not doing it, especially at a time when he could be playing for New Zealand against the Great Britain tourists.

The Kiwi coach, Frank Endacott, has made it plain how disappointed he is that Paul should have opted for club rugby union in Britain rather than playing for his country.

"But by the time Frank Endacott spoke to me the deal with Bath had already been done for four weeks," Paul said. "I'd gone for something that was definitely there, rather than something that might not be."

Players like Paul, his equally gifted brother, Robbie, from the Bradford Bulls, and the Wigan and Great Britain centre, Gary Connolly, will add a new dimension to the union game. The footwork of the Pauls is quite unlike anything in union, as is the sheer power of Connolly's tackling. As Wigan showed against Bath, the pace and imagination of league back play is several steps ahead of its union equivalent.

The players who can bring these qualities to union are said to be on contracts worth up to pounds 6,000 a match - dazzling money by any standards.

Making a virtue of necessity, the League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, says that it would be unfair to prevent players from making that sort of killing. But clubs like Warrington and St Helens maintain that league has no business making union look better by lending out its best and brightest; none of their players will be guesting in rugby union this winter.

League has to be concerned about the possibility of burn-out. "I don't feel the need for any rest," Paul said. "When my rugby starts to go down I'll know it's time to take a rest."

He even argues that he could come back to league a better player. "That was the main reason for wanting to go to Bath - there are players there I can learn from," he said.

Paul is due back at Wigan for pre-season training on 11 January, but sees that as open to negotiation.

"If we were still in the Cup, I'd expect a bit of flexibility," he said. Worse than that, Paul has already talked publicly about the possibility of playing union full-time when the remaining two years of his Wigan contract expire.

That is one fear - that the boys will not come back at all. The other is that they will come back rich but full of bad habits.

There might be a brief thrill in seeing the Pauls, Connolly and Jason Robinson tying the old enemy in knots. But it will be interesting to see what sort of rugby league they will be playing a year from now.

The League influx: Cross-code crusaders

LEAGUE ONE: Bath: H Paul (Wigan); R Webster (Salford); C Tyrer (Widnes); J Robinson (Wigan). Harlequins: R Paul (Bradford); G Connolly (Wigan). Leicester: G Austin (Huddersfield). Orrell: F Botica (Castleford); D Lyon (Leigh). Sale: A Hadley (Widnes); D Wright (Widnes); J Devereux (Widnes); R Eyres (Leeds). Wasps: V Tuigamale (Wigan). LEAGUE TWO: Bedford: M Offiah (London Broncos); S McCurrie (Widnes); M Pechey (Widnes). Blackheath: A Ekoku (Halifax). Moseley: C Hall (Leeds). Richmond: Jim Fallon (Leeds); S Quinnell (Wigan). Rotherham: J Bentley (Halifax). Waterloo: T Thorniley (Widnes); D Ruane (Widnes); J Green (Widnes).