Rugby Union: Blinkers off for the new year

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The Independent Online
IN 1994 two developments which I have long urged in this column look as if they will come nearer to completion. Note my caution. I do not say they will actually come about next year. In the world of British and Irish rugby union, that would be rash. But they will come closer.

The first is full transferability, at all levels, between union and league. The reason lies less in the merits of the case (which are, in politics, the last considerations to be borne in mind) but, rather, in the views of the Minister for Sport, Iain Sproat.

He has not enjoyed the best of presses. Which Minister for Sport since Denis Howell has? But he is an experienced politician. He deserves the sporting nation's gratitude - he certainly has mine, for originating, publishing and editing The Cricketers' Who's Who.

Sproat has strong views about the exclusion of professional league players from the union game. As he recently put it to a sports-writing friend of mine: 'I want to see Jonathan Davies play rugby union again before I die.'

So do many of us. However, the rugby league group of (chiefly Labour) MPs are likely to take a more detached attitude. They had some influence over the decision to allow full transferability between the codes at amateur level. But, once that was brought about, they considered their functions in this area to be at an end.

It may be, of course, that over this question the league authorities will be at one with the crustier elements of the Rugby Football Union. In material terms, they have a greater influence than the RFU (or the other domestic unions) in preventing Davies from turning out in the No 10 jersey again at Stradey Park, or in seeing Ellery Hanley as the Harlequins' No 7.

But though, as I say, the merits of the case are the last consideration, they do count for something in the end. And the present attitude of the rugby unions to professional league players is in principle indefensible.

The second development is some form of Anglo-Welsh competition. For the present mentality of the Exclusive Brethren in both England and Wales is becoming increasingly irksome to spectators. It is growing tedious for some leading players as well. Much of the dissatisfaction, it is fair to say, comes from west of Offa's Dike. The reasoning is roughly as follows:

Since England adopted leagues, and the cup became a true annual event, English rugby has grown to be pre-eminent in Europe. But since Wales adopted leagues (with the cup remaining the great attraction it had always been), Welsh rugby has been at or near the bottom of the class. Therefore, the argument runs, English and Welsh clubs should intermingle at the highest level. In this way the standard of Welsh rugby will inexorably rise.

I do not find this argument convincing. For Welsh rugby has always, in practice, had a league system, dominated by Cardiff, Llanelli and Swansea, with Neath or Newport, Pontypool or Bridgend, enjoying periods of intermittent prosperity. This was reflected in the national team.

What has happened is that the English leagues have produced a hierarchy which was not previously present, owing to the relatively large area and to the traditions of the fixture lists. This, too, has now been reflected in the national team.

Indeed, I would argue that, for the health of the game, this process has gone too far, though perfunctory efforts have been made to impede it. Thus Ben Clarke and Jason Leonard felt it necessary to leave Saracens (then a First Division club) to join Bath and Harlequins respectively to improve their England prospects.

Nevertheless, I should like to see an Anglo-Welsh league, consisting of a top four or even five clubs from each country, with promotion or relegation for one club from each. My guess is that the Welsh clubs would do well, but that their performance would have little effect on the national team.

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