Rugby League: Dragged down by snipers of the unseen game

Jonathan Davies says it is time rugby league convinced the public of its strengths
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The Independent Online
ALONG with the viewers of BBC Grandstand, I've been enjoying a feast of rugby weekends for the past couple of months as a studio guest and co-commentator and it has been interesting to compare at first hand the present strengths of union and league.

It has been a tall order for league to compete with all the dramas of the Five Nations but the game has been more than equal to the task and we've seen some great matches. I hope that yesterday's Challenge Cup semi- final between Salford and Sheffield Eagles carried this on and that today's other semi-final between Wigan and London Broncos will be a humdinger.

What I'm not so happy about is that the old bitter rivalry between the codes has flared up again and most of it seems to be coming from league. The Wigan coach, John Monie, and Shaun McRae, of St Helens, couldn't resist a dig at union players recently and when it was suggested last week that Wigan were going to buy Scott Quinnell back from union an official dismissed it saying: "It would take us a year to get him fit."

I'm sure there is an element of teasing in all this but there is also a strong undercurrent of seriousness and I can recognise it because I experienced it myself - I still am. In the Rugby League Express the other week, one of their writers criticised the Grandstand coverage and questioned my credentials as a co-commentator because I was out of touch with the game.

Less than two and a half years ago I captained Wales against England in the semi- final of the Rugby League World Cup at the end of a six-year league career in which I twice won the Man of Steel award, played for four teams here and in Australia, played 21 internationals, captained Wales and Great Britain and scored 2,258 points in 25l games.

I've never made any secret of the fact that I love league and haven't taken my eyes off it since I left. I praise and promote league wherever I go. But it sums up the attitude of many in league - as a convert from union it took me ages to get accepted and when I returned to Wales it seems that I relinquished any respect I earned. I'm a union man again and that means I'm a fair target for sniping at.

This parochial attitude does upset me because I think the game should be bigger than that. I accept that league took 100 years of insults from union but surely all that should be behind us? I don't hear union people attacking league these days. In fact, a great deal of respect exists for it. Neither do I hear other sports criticising each other.

There's bags of room for the two codes to live together and learn from each other. And if league feel that theirs is a better product, there's no harm in them saying so. But you don't promote the game by taking pot- shots at your rivals and continuing an ancient enmity.

Apart from being impressed by the league rugby I've seen so far, I must say that in Andy Farrell they have the most talented player of both codes. He's quick, throws terrific 30 yards passes, has a great brain and kicks goals with ease. And I'm not surprised that the Rugby Football Union have been trying to sign him up as well as Gary Connolly and Jason Robinson.

But, apart from making a great improvement as a spectacle, union also possesses some excellent players. Lawrence Dallaglio, Tim Rodber, Richard Hill, Emyr Lewis, Allan Bateman, Jeremy Guscott and Philippe Sella would all be exceptional in league but would any of them be wise to go?

Instead of picking holes in union, the league should be looking at its own future. And the series of cup ties we're having on Grandstand only serves to emphasise what most of the country is missing during the regular season. By moving over to BSkyB television, league is starving itself of the exposure it desperately needs to develop.

I know the money was important in setting up the summer season of Super League but the lack of terrestrial television exposure is serious. It was a disaster that the Test series against Australia last autumn wasn't seen by a larger audience. The game is in a ghetto and adopting a ghetto mentality to go with it is dangerous.

The new season promises to be excellent, with five or six sides all vying for the top, and the league have to find some way of getting some sort of terrestrial coverage, even if it is only a half-an-hour a week highlights programme.

The excellence we will see today will only emphasise what I mean. After this, we only have the cup final to go and then terrestrial viewers will say goodbye to the game for the summer. They must try to promote the game by ensuring that other channels have secondary rights. League is a great product. Instead of running others down they should concentrate on letting the game speak for itself.