Rugby: Iestyn time for league

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The Independent Online
APART FROM record-breaking crowds when the season kicks off tomorrow, I cannot think of a better Christmas present for rugby league than Iestyn Harris's decision to turn down a move to union and stay with Leeds.

Whatever motivated him finally to make his choice, his continuing presence there will be a big boost both for his club and for the game generally.

I know that one man should not make that much difference to a club or a sport, but his departure from league just before the start of a vital season would have been a morale-shattering blow to a game which is in desperate need of a big new year. Although I would have loved to see how he coped with the change to union, I think that he has done the right thing.

Either way, though, the episode was an amazing way for rugby generally to end the 20th Century. Given the bitter history between the two codes, it hardly seems credible that a young player should even be considering a big-money move from league to union. It shows how the rugby world has been stood on its head in the four years since union went professional.

It's only a few days short of 11 years since I made the decision to make the reverse journey, and at that time I got the sort of publicity normally reserved for mass murderers. There was a slight difference between myself and Iestyn, though. I was prompted by a need to earn a living and secure a future for my family. Iestyn is lucky in that whatever he decided, he wasn't going to lose out by it.

And, by the end of the new four-year contract he has just signed he will still be only 27, the age I was when I made the switch. I understand that there are other players lined up for approaches from union and I am not surprised because league players do have everything it takes to succeed in union.

That doesn't mean to say it is easy, however. Union is getting to resemble league in some ways, but there is still a vast difference between the two codes. I was talking about this the other week to Phil Larder, the former league coach who is now doing excellent work at Leicester and with the England union team. He was saying how difficult it has been for him to adjust - and he's not even playing.

At the same time that Iestyn was deciding to stay put, the Wasps winger Paul Sampson was moving from union to league with Wakefield. Paul made an early impact in union and won his way into the England squad, but his progress will now be helped by playing league where he'll get more involved. He'll do very well because he has the great asset of pace.

You can't overstate the importance of this new season which will climax in the World Cup next September. League will not be able to hide any shortcomings. Not all the game will be back in earnest today. The Super League teams will be playing what they laughingly call friendlies and won't begin playing for points until the end of February. But the Ford Northern Premiership gets under way now, and much depends on their ability to make an impact and draw the crowds.

I'm aware that the various factions in league have been at loggerheads and there are attempts at re-unification but despite the problems they do have one advantage over rugby union - they have a firmly established order. They cater clearly for amateurs, semi-pros and full pros. Everyone knows where and what they are.

Union could learn a big lesson from that simple arrangement. If players wish to progress, they have every incentive. If they can't or won't, they know where they stand. I hope the league will give union a few rugby lessons, too. I'm really looking forward to watching league again and I mean it when I wish them a very happy new year.