Rugby Union: A game on the gangplank: Chris Rea says that last week's moves may alter the face of rugby union

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The Independent Online
IN A gruesome week for rugby union, the one item of light relief has been the announcement that Jacques Fouroux, the prince of madcap schemes, has abandoned his plans for a professional rugby union circus and has turned his attention instead to rugby league.

He intends to assemble a troop of Union stars to compete in the English rugby league. So, le petit general has finally lost his Gallic marbles.

Rugby league is welcome to him and the only astonishing thing in this French farce is that Maurice Lindsay, the rugby league chief executive and by all accounts a sensible man, has welcomed the idea. It is perhaps a measure of how desperate the league code is to expand that Lindsay should have bothered to dignify this proposition with a response.

Fouroux's latest flight of fantasy, however, is unlikely to cut much ice with the players on his shopping list; anyone capable of such shifts of intention may not be an ideal business partner. The two codes may have started out as one under the same roof and may now be indistinguishable in law, but after a century apart they are strangers when they meet. Hence the reason why it takes so long for union players who have switched codes to adjust to their new trade. Some never do.

There is no more futile exercise than fantasising on the likely outcome of a match between the codes. Great Britain would have no more chance of beating England under union laws than England would have of beating Great Britain under league rules. (Those who believe league to be a superior game in all respects may care to consider just how and where league players playing union would win possession. Martin Bayfield and company would slaughter them in the line-out and they would be massacred in the scrummage.) Nowadays the structural and strategic differences are far greater than the social ones. It would therefore take a team of union players a minimum of two years to adapt to league and that is on the unlikely assumption that each and every one of them would be suited to the game. By that time, the agonising ritual of watching this disoriented, demoralised ragbag of has-beens being beaten to a pulp would have long since lost its appeal as a spectator sport.

Rugby union's administrators have been lampooned as elitist protectionists basking in the sunshine of their privilege and good fortune, but if this grotesque hybrid is what they have been fighting to prevent, then all power to them. They have also been mocked and vilified for their attempts to preserve the game from the impurities of professionalism. In this, they have been spectacularly unsuccessful which is why the game is now in such a confounded mess.

Time will decide the significance of the decisions of the past week in which the International Board felt obliged to make yet more clearances along the gangway - or should that be gangplank? - to rugby league by lifting the automatic life ban on league players wishing to return to union.

Once again, it has been left to the Rugby Football Union to offer up the cautionary words to which few will pay the slightest heed. Dudley Wood, the RFU secretary, believes that there will be enough checks and balances built into the ruling to enable a union to limit the potential damage done to the game by an influx of league players at the fag-end of their careers. At the other end of the scale, he thinks that far from increasing the flow to rugby league, the new ruling could significantly reduce it. When, as it must, the RFU abandons its stance against payment for rugby-related activities, England's top players will have the opportunity to earn considerable sums of money.

Moreover, the ending of the ban means that, in future, rugby league clubs can offer shorter contracts and reduced signing-on fees which might still entice the minor talents from union but would be less appealing to the star performers. Scott Quinnell made off with the swag in the nick of time.

The RFU is taking solace in the fact that, although there may be a legal obligation to allow league players to return to the game, the stand-by period of two or three years will be an effective delaying device. They are also confident that they can uphold the ban on league players from ever again representing their countries. In support of this, they cite other sports like golf and cricket where professionals returning to the amateur ranks cannot play at international level. But this may not be so easy.

Having surrendered on the principle that disbarring league players constitutes a restraint of trade, then it would be extremely difficult to exclude them from the one area in which there is substantial financial reward.

Complacency remains the greatest danger. There could be no more chilling portent of things to come and no starker demonstration of the corrosive effects of the poacher's work than the events of last Saturday. While Jonathan Davies, the most grievous of all losses to rugby union, was tripping the light fantastic in front of a packed house at Wembley and a domestic television audience comparable with the best in last season's Five Nations' Championship, the Springboks were making their first appearance for 25 years in Wales, the once proud epicentre of the world game but now ravaged by the defections of so many leading players. Fewer than 15,000 turned out to watch a contest of stultifying mediocrity.

Given the choice last week between the National Stadium in Cardiff and Wembley, I know where I would rather have been. And I can think of nothing more exhilarating than the prospect of seeing Davies back where he belongs - in the scarlet jersey graced by so many of the game's most lustrous talents.

But I can't help thinking that if and when he ever does, rugby union will no longer be the game with which it has been my pleasure and privilege to have been associated for the past 40 years. Anyone for tennis?

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