Rugby League: League's case for defence of free movement: Dave Hadfield contends that rugby union, the only sport which bans players from another, will have to come to terms with its rival code

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Amid rugby union's breast- beating over opening the door to former professionals, it is being largely forgotten that this is a rugby league story too, and one in which league has made the running.

Union would never have done this merely because it is the right thing to do; they have been forced into it, primarily by league and the code's allies who have recognised the justice of league's case.

Although there has been pressure from unions in Australia and New Zealand for the right to reinstate, the Rugby Union in this country has shown a full awareness of the significance of David Hinchcliffe's private member's bill - to outlaw discrimination between the two codes - by the ruling body's strenuous efforts to head it off at the pass.

On top of that, almost 100 years of fighting shy of taking union's legally indefensible practices to court were about to be ended by the fledgling American rugby league organisation. The game, quite simply, is up. The only sport on the planet which bans participants from another is having to join the real world. The implications for league are as far- reaching as they are for union, even if they are not always as some on both sides of the historic divide perceive them.

If the immediate effect was that an abject failure in league such as Stuart Evans can play high-level union again, then the north of England will hardly be able to suppress its laughter. No doubt a few others, mainly the ones nobody cares much about in any case, will choose to spend their declining years back in union.

Any who were any good in the first place and returned still in their prime would be so embarrassingly improved on their pre-league selves that they would be the best advert the game could have.

It is on the wider question of what happens next that there are wildly differing ideas.

To the eyes of the most blinkered in the union camp, free movement and open professionalism mean that rugby league will cease to have a reason to exist.

Official voices within union often remark, in what they seem to regard as some sort of liberal concession, that they are quite glad league does exist, because it acts as a safety valve for the financial aspirations that union cannot satisfy.

That is no part of league's own reason for being there. It regards itself as an entirely separate sport, which happens to share a common root with and which occasionally attracts converts from rugby union.

Note the word occasionally. The argument that union has been justified in treating league as a special case because it is parasitic does not stand up to scrutiny.

Of the 17 Great Britain players at Wembley last Saturday, 14 grew up playing league and two union, while Martin Offiah was more interested in Arsenal than anything else. Of the Australian 17, only one - Ricky Stuart - has ever played union to any standard. The current Wallaby side, on the other hand, have virtually all played some junior league. Not much of a culture of dependency there.

League will continue to provide players of quality with an alternative, and the main effect of a gangway allowing them back into union should be to reduce the size of signing-on fees. Some league players never previously involved in union may be tempted to give it a try, although most would find it stiflingly dull.

The point as far as league is concerned, however, is that the disincentive to union players trying their hand at league will be reduced, if not completely removed.

In areas like Wales and Scotland, where the development of the code has been an uphill struggle, relatively free movement between the sports will be beneficial to a game which is willing to take its chances on that famous and elusive surface, the level playing field.

But the hope of some in league that union and its establishment friends will from now on treat them as full equals is likely to be disappointed.

Even as an openly professional sport at its top level and one that welcomes back its prodigals, union is unlikely to abandon its history of dirty tricks with which it has tried to suppress the spread of league. Ingrained habits are more durable than that.

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