Rugby Union: Across the big divide

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The Independent Online
THESE are supposed to be enlightened times for rugby now that union has gone professional and the age-old barriers between union and league have been broken down but I despair of the ancient attitudes that refuse to go away.

The bitterness between the codes has broken out again after a claim in another Sunday newspaper that union clubs have been short-changed by expensive former league players who can't cope when they change codes.

The painful lesson of recent history, we were told, is that for rugby union clubs to sign league players is a "horrendous risk". Quite apart from being an insult to some great rugby players this is a daft thing to say. The recent history of rugby is far too recent for any such conclusion to be reached. Indeed, the only painful lesson to be learned from the period is the size of the horrendous mess union is in.

The last few years have been an unsatisfactory experience for most of those concerned with the game and that includes the league players who have been tempted to give union a try. But why pick on them? Crossing between these quite different brands of rugby is difficult and always will be but any quality player, given time, would succeed in both. And time is the only thing that's been missing from the equation.

Having spent the best part of my life playing and studying both codes I have no doubt that, whereas the games are different, the basic qualities needed to play both at the very top level are similar.

Up to now, most players have ended up in one or the other because of where they were born. If Iestyn Harris and Andy Farrell had been born in Bath they would have both been stars in the England team. If Robert Howley and Jeremy Guscott had been born in Wigan they would have been greats in rugby league. And each of them is good enough to change codes and be just as successful.

But I wouldn't like to estimate how long it would take. Two weeks ago I wrote that I wouldn't advise Harris to change to union so that he could play for Wales in next year's Rugby World Cup. He's more than good enough but I felt there was not enough time for him to adapt. He could well prove me wrong but people who haven't experienced it don't realise what it takes to make the change.

I think average players would find it easier to make the switch but a high-profile player, with all the pressures that accompany a big signing, has to be prepared for a hard climb to reach the heights.

League clubs are more aware than union clubs about this because the traffic used to be all one way. When I went from Wales to Widnes in January 1989 I was very grateful to Doug Laughton for the slow introduction he put me through. I was impatient to get on with it but he brought me on gradually and I needed it.

That first season, I played in their championship-winning team and the following season I played at centre against the great Mal Meninga when Widnes beat Canberra for the World Club Championship. That season I scored 260 points and still felt a bit of rookie. In the summer of 1990 I had the good fortune to be selected to tour with Great Britain and I found myself training or playing every day with top quality players under the coaching of Malcolm Reilly. It was an eight-week crash course in league and only after that did I start to feel at home with the game.

It took another season, however, before I really thought that I was a complete rugby league player and had lost all my union instincts. When I came back to union, of course, I found myself in a similar situation. I had to rediscover those lost instincts, the different angles of running and the totally different kicking skills required.

If it took me a while, it would be utterly alien to someone who had never played union before. So any assessment of the ventures made into union by players such as Jason Robinson, Gary Connolly, Robbie and Henry Paul would be very unfair if it didn't take these problems into consideration. I won't accept that these are not excellent players who are fully capable of making it in union if given the correct amount of time.

I wrote earlier this season that I thought Andy Farrell was the best British rugby player of either code and I've seen no reason to change my mind. If I was the coach of a major union club who needed a No 8, I'd have no hesitation in bidding for him. He would need time to adjust but it would be a terrific investment, not least because you'd also have one of the best goalkickers in the business.