Rugby League: Pilgrim's plight exposes hypocrisy: Dave Hadfield, Rugby League Correspondent, criticises the amateur code's stance on links with the professional game

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE case of Steve Pilgrim, the England B rugby union full-back banned for a year after playing a reserve-team trial for Leeds Rugby League Club, is just the latest of a recent series of events putting under increasing strain the cosy assumption that the codes had learned to live together in harmony.

For several years, people in rugby league - particularly in amateur rugby league - have been congratulating themselves on achieving what they call a 'free gangway' between the two sports.

One might assume that a free gangway might allow a player to take part in an unpaid trial - what Pilgrim called 'a job interview' - for a league club without becoming a pariah. Or that students would be allowed to play as amateurs for a representative league side without being banned from union, or that a new club could be formed with the intention of playing both league and union.

Wrong on all counts. Pilgrim's fate disproves the first; an inquiry from the Welsh rugby league team about the possibility of students turning out for them was met with the threat of two-year bans for any who did; and, when a club tried to start up in Reading to play both games, the Rugby Union swiftly withdrew its funding.

It is tempting to draw the conclusion that union feels it has something particular to fear from league at the moment. However, given the World Cup proceeds which are being ploughed into union through a development scheme (in itself an idea originated in rugby league), and given the current disarray of league's strategy for the future, union's attitude seems more like ingrained and instinctive hostility than a logical reaction to any real threat.

The Freedom in Rugby Campaign, set up in 1984 to work for a more equitable relationship but recently reactivated, feels that it is high time that union should be made to answer for a set of attitudes that no other sport would dream of applying to any other. Its organiser, Trevor Gibbons, says that the much-vaunted 'free gangway' has produced some benefits but is scathing about its limits.

'Union authorities simply ignore it and put barriers up when it suits them,' he said. 'Why should rugby league even have to ask for a free gangway from rugby union? Does soccer, or cricket or hockey or any other sport have to ask for a free gangway for its players who may also choose to play rugby union?

'Could rugby union say that you could play unless you were black or unless your parents were Irish?'

Union's claim that the gangway applies only to players who acquire no taint of professionalism by playing alongside players who are paid is laughably hypocritical in an era when the likes of Carling and Campese can become rich men by dint of their fame as rugby players.

England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales play every year against Frenchmen who are professionals in all but name, and some of them former rugby league players at that, without suffering any obvious distress.

Nobody seems to want to examine too closely the amateur credentials of the readmitted South Africa, no doubt with good reason. But when it comes to rugby league, the ghost of Danie Craven is alive and well. The doctor's obituaries all omitted his description of rugby league players as 'reptiles' and his vow that the game would never be played in his country. Perhaps these were not quite in tune with his revised image as a progressive administrator. He would throw up his hands in horrified defence of amateurism, but he would have stongly approved of the job offer that prevented Albertus Enslin from joining Wakefield Trinity.

But then that was not very far removed from the arrangement set up by the Welsh - partial to the odd allegedly well-paid trip to South Africa themselves - to keep Scott Gibbs from going north.

Against this background and with open professionalism, as opposed to the ridiculous ambiguities inherent in the present system of 'non rugby-related' payments, coming closer every day, the RFU and the Sports Council, which often seems closely associated with it (Sir Peter Yarranton, the chairman of the Sports Council, is the immediate past president of the RFU), persist in the myth that they are already doing what natural justice demands with the grudging concession that some players can play both codes of rugby under some circumstances.

The Freedom in Rugby Campaign and groups of league-orientated MPs in both Westminster and Strasbourg see that for the nonsense it is. The free gangway has been revealed as a flimsy structure; too many of its planks are apparently riddled with the rottenness that grows out of bigotry and some sportsmen remain more free than others.

(Photograph omitted)