Rugby League: Moriarty stokes home fire: Owen Slot meets a former hero of Welsh rugby who is in league this afternoon to take on the Australians

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The Independent Online
THE LOBBY of the Cardiff Marriott hotel these past three days has, at times, resembled a hall of fame. Wales has hardly been brimming with rugby union talent recently, but much of the best of it has been reunited. Jonathan Davies is the leader of this merry band of former union internationals, which includes four others from the 1988 Triple Crown-winning squad, including the largest of the lot, Paul Moriarty.

This is the Welsh rugby league squad, robbed by injury of the skills of Davies, but nevertheless all the gathered for today's game against Australia. They are wistfully told that if they were still playing the old game, they would help Wales win the World Cup. But, says Moriarty, 'we tend to take the mick out of rugby union. I'm sorry, but it happens quite a lot. The majority of us feel the same - we can't believe that's what we played. As a spectacle, it's like watching paint dry.'

Moriarty says this with some regret; the professional code, in his estimation, comes out ahead in both viewing and playing terms and he knows that Welsh people will not want to hear it. Yet playing in the National Stadium, before 60,000 of his countrymen, has been a pinnacle in his sporting life. Coming back to play league for Wales is next best; representing Great Britain, as he has done twice, trails in third.

'Great Britain is the highest level I can reach, but I get a bigger buzz playing for Wales.' And he says this knowing that today's match, Wales's biggest fixture since the national side reformed three years ago, has Ninian Park, home to Cardiff City FC, as its venue and will attract only 15,000 spectators. 'I just find myself more wound up. It's coming back home. There are people expecting a lot, and you want to do that bit extra for family and friends. It's only 240 miles away, but it's not the same playing up north for Great Britain.'

Moriarty changed codes in March 1989, signing a pounds 150,000 contract with Widnes. A 24-year-old Swansea flanker from a rugby-playing family (his brother Richard captained Wales), he had 21 Welsh caps and was driven north, disenchanted with a new Welsh regime under the coach John Ryan. It was at a time when only three other compatriots - Phil Ford, Adrian Hadley and Jonathan Davies - had converted. Ryan, Moriarty believes, started the drain and within 18 months there were enough Welshmen for Moriarty, Davies, John Devereux - all Widnes Welshmen - and Jim Mills, Widnes's Welsh chairman, to spend coach journeys mulling over the possibility of reviving a national team.

Fantasy came to fruition in October 1991 at the Vetch Field, Swansea, where Wales beat Papua New Guinea 68-0 and Davies set a new national record with 24 points. Wales have won three of their five games since, though Moriarty has missed two of them thanks to a spate of injuries that had him on the surgeon's table 12 times in five years. A shattered kneecap in 1990 meant 18 months' absence, during which Moriarty hit such a low that he rang Doug Laughton, the Widnes coach, to announce his retirement. Laughton didn't receive the call, but a number of operations later Moriarty moved to Halifax and confounded those who believed he would never play again.

Returning to play with his old Welsh team-mates, he carries a great deal of emotional baggage. 'I think we have made the most of it every time because we never thought the opportunity would arise again. Now we're mapped out until the next league World Cup and so this week, there's been a noticeable difference, much more professional. Before, the games have been reunions, social things when we've stayed out too late and probably let ourselves down on the pitch.'

All bar four of the squad - Mark Perrett, Iestyn Harris, Anthony Sullivan and Ian Marlow - are former union players and their experience in changing codes has benefited the newcomers. Scott Gibbs attended a Welsh camp in the summer, having already done pre-season training with St Helens and 'just didn't have a clue'. Moriarty stood next to him on the pitch and spent every session teaching him positional play.

Among many of his former union colleagues, Moriarty believes, there is the desire to try their hand, and this includes one of the all-time greats: 'They would like to have one game, just to see what it's like. JPR Williams told me he'd had an offer from Hull back in the Seventies and that his biggest regret in his rugby career was not taking it up. And this is a surgeon, not someone who needs the money.'

Given that he believes he has found the brighter side of the rugby divide, would Moriarty revert to union if, as the news from last week's International Board meeting suggests, he will be allowed? 'Not to serious union, not having played league. But the lads have talked about it this week and, yes, there are a few who would like the opportunity again. Jonathan (Davies) for one; I don't think union defences could cope with the way he plays the game now.'

Moriarty will return to Swansea when his league career is up, and there will be time then for charity matches, to move down a gear. 'The amount of time you get at line-outs and scrums, I didn't even get tired. League is simply a better game,' he says, a convert in the full sense of the word.

(Photograph omitted)

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