Rugby Union: Gibbs' flight to St Helens outrages Swansea: Welsh and British Isles union centre switches codes for five-year contract and derides his former sport's efforts to keep him

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The Independent Online
AFTER three false starts, Scott Gibbs, the Wales and British Isles rugby union centre, switched codes yesterday, signing for St Helens, and provoking instant outrage at his old club, Swansea, who had worked hard to prevent his departure.

'Of all the players who have gone to rugby league, Scott is the first one I wouldn't want to see in the Swansea club again,' Mike James, the chairman, said.

These days Welsh players who turn professional do so with the regret but also almost the blessing of their understanding peers. Not in Gibbs's case.

The usual diplomatic niceties as were observed when another Swansea Lion, Richard Webster, joined Salford seven months ago, were swiftly abandoned once Gibbs had put pen to paper at St Helens. The reason for the acerbic response is the thankless, and ultimately unappreciated, work done by a host of people to keep the centre in rugby union, coupled with the clandestine nature of his departure.

'It takes a lot to shake me nowadays but I'm staggered,' James said yesterday. 'I learned a long time ago that if you try to get other people to apply the same standards to life as you do, you get disappointed very quickly and Scott has indicated that his standards, in terms of being a gentleman, are not very high.'

On Welsh television Gibbs derided rugby union's efforts when he said: 'They can't compete.' The latest package he had taken up, involving learning about computing and PR, with a business studies course thrown in, was worth around pounds 35,000 a year. Not bad for a former double-glazing installer but not good enough against a five-year rugby league contract supposedly worth at least seven times that amount.

'I have great regard for the game of rugby league, the people who run it and the people who play it, but I would say to them that Mr Gibbs has treated the game of rugby union football very, very shoddily,' said James, a successful Swansea businessman and rugged former All Whites lock.

'It's not the fact that he has gone north - that's a decision for him - but the manner in which he has treated people who have worked very, very hard on his behalf.'

The 23-year-old centre has been an elusive and sought-after commodity for rugby league clubs for three years. He has previously decided against accepting offers from Hull - when he was half-way to Humberside to sign - from Wigan and, last year, from Saints.

'I felt the time was right now,' he said at his belated unveiling ceremony at Knowsley Road. 'I had a good time in rugby union, but I've achieved all my ambitions with Wales and the Lions. I feel now is the time to move on for a new challenge.

'Rugby league is one of the toughest games on earth and I know that the physical demands are going to be very tough. But with the right conditioning and the right approach and attitude I'm sure I can fit in.'

Saints needed to reassure themselves not only about Gibbs's determination to come off the fence but also about his long-term fitness. He has not played since damaging knee ligaments playing for the Barbarians against New Zealand in December, but the St Helens chairman, Eric Ashton, said that the club physician had given him '100 per cent clearance'. There is no prospect, however, of Gibbs playing for his new club this season.

Gibbs said that his first ambition was to establish himself in Saints' first team, something that has proved difficult for Webster, his great friend and former Swansea team-mate, at Salford and for some other recent rugby union signings.

'My next target would be to play for Wales in the World Cup,' he said. 'The awareness of the game in South Wales has been increasing. There has been a resurgence of interest in both codes.'

Saints have had their most disappointing season for years and went into last night's match at Bradford still in danger of missing the top- eight Premiership play-offs for the first time.

Hughes, who took over as coach from Mike McClennan in mid-season, gave a clear indication that signing Gibbs would not stop the club pursuing its other familiar target - the Australian Test captain, Mal Meninga. Meninga, who last played for Saints in 1985, is keenly interested in rejoining the club after this autumn's Kangaroos tour and would form an intriguing centre partnership with Gibbs. 'I want competition for all places,' Hughes said. 'I have felt that the centres have been having it too easy.'

(Photograph omitted)