Rugby Union: Inequality of one-way traffic

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The Independent Online
THE MOST significant pieces of news of the season have come at the end. They are that the ruck- and-maul law is to continue (even if with a few modifications) and that certain rugby league players may, after a gap of two years, be allowed to participate in rugby union.

Religious conversion is much in the air these days, with several Anglicans going over to the Church of Rome. If we regard rugby league players as Anglicans, and union players as Catholics, it will be as if Anglicans can become Catholics, and Catholics Anglicans. But Catholics who become Anglicans will not be allowed to revert to their original faith.

As Winston Churchill once said of his own early shifts of political loyalty beween the Conservative and Liberal parties: anyone can rat once, but it takes a man of character to rat twice.

Note, however, the lack of equality between the codes. While Jonathan Davies cannot return to Llanelli, or Martin Offiah to Rosslyn Park, there is nothing to prevent Ellery Hanley, say, from signing on for Harlequins as Peter Winterbottom's successor, playing a couple of seasons at the Stoop, and then returning to Leeds or some other Northern club to see out the autumn of his days.

Stuart Evans, the former Swansea and Wales prop who has not perhaps enjoyed the best of good fortune up north, is already talking about taking legal action against the union authorities. I am surprised that no one has taken action before. The case earlier in the season of Steve Pilgrim, who was dropped by Wasps and by representative sides as soon as he had participated in a league trial, provided an excellent opportunity for seeing how the law stood.

My view is that the union authorities are on shaky ground. They are seeking to discriminate against certain players of a particular game, which happens to be a variation of their own game. They do not object to individuals who may make or have made money out of other sports.

Though they may object to inter- changeability between codes at amateur level, they have been forced to accept it by the Sports Council. And the most recent proposed change narrows the field of discrimination further - to former union players who wish to return to their original code. Add to this the exception made for league players who serve Her Majesty in her Armed Forces or enjoy her hospitality in what are still her prisons, and it is a rickety structure, legally speaking.

Some commentators have written that there is little chance that the outstanding performers in league, will, under the existing proposals, turn to union. No chance of seeing Hanley at the Stoop: that seems to be the consensus. I am not so sure. Union clubs seem to be able to wrap up enticing packages for players these days. The comings and goings of the last few months may have had something to do with a place in a Courage First Division team. They have also been concerned with the provision of jobs, cars and houses.

There is another factor, too. Owing to the new laws, union is becoming more like league. To gain possession, the ball is pounced on or scooped back off the ground. Forwards line up with backs in a defensive wall. Tackling is perceptibly more fierce: players are stopped in their tracks or forced two or three yards backwards rather than simply brought down. The high tackle may be penalised as it is not in league. But the smother tackle is becoming increasingly common.

Shortened line-outs take place all the time. Only the scrummage retains more or less its old form. And I shall be sorry if the union scrum ever degenerates into the shambles that is league's version.

Jeff Probyn, for one, would prevent such a change. I end this season's reflections with him because I think he has been shabbily treated by the Lions' selectors. He was possibly the most consistent member of the England pack, tidying up and getting about the field with remarkable agility. Against Ireland he was virtually the only forward to keep his head and get on with the job.

More important: the New Zealanders fear him, as they do not now fear Wade Dooley, who is only 18 months younger. Not taking Probyn is worse than an injustice. It is a mistake.