Rugby Union: Movement that can forge a strong union

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The Independent Online
OUR gratitude is due to the game of rugby union for ensuring that sport has not been totally upstaged by parliament in the matter of sleaze. The International Rugby Board's continuing fillibuster over the subject of illegal payments compares with anything the House of Commons can drum up, and they do so without the help of a register of members' little earners. In fairness, if they did try to keep one, there would not be room at Twickenham for a rugby pitch.

We are fast approaching the moment when rugby should do what it always does at a time like this - start another code. We have had two for the past 99 years, so what's wrong with creating a third that embodies the best features of the others and would be acceptable to both sets of clubs, players and supporters?

The rugby unions would not countenance such a move, I hear you protest. Of course, they would not, but the players and clubs should go ahead and do it in any case. It is no longer in their best interests to hang around while their masters struggle to come to terms with the age in which we live.

Let them stew - that's what happened in 1895 when the game was just as riven by conflict, bigotry and an arrogant contempt for the earning of a wage. It worked; at least, it did for the breakaway northern clubs who created the rugby league which has developed as an excellent game to play and watch.

Not the least of league's strengths, of course, is that right from the outset the game proclaimed an unswervingly honest attitude towards money and to ensuring that players were not put in financial discomfort by their devotion to the game. Unfortunately, the professional game at club level is not at its most flourishing. Any sport that can produce a stirring occasion such as that seen at Wembley last weekend should not be regarded as ailing but clubs urgently need more income and wider horizons.

Rugby union has the problem in reverse. It has traditionally enjoyed more widespread popularity both in Britain and worldwide and has great influence and financial power. But the game itself has developed a worrying tendency towards an over-physical tediousness and badly needs revitalising. The recent explosion of televised matches means that the casual observer can see both codes at club level at a frequency never before possible, and union is in no way being flattered by the comparision.

That gives us one code badly in need of expansion and fresh competition and another code desperate for a professional structure and a way to accentuate the skills people pay to see. You need not be a commercial or marketing genius to see that there are even more compelling reasons for them joining together in 1995 than there were for them splitting up in 1895.

The legacy of that 100 years, however, would not allow that. Although they have long practised a form of professionalism at the higher levels, union administrators cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the fact, for that would force them to surrender the moral superiority that forms the basis for their loathing of league. The hatred that celebrates its centenary next year will continue to prevent any progress from being made.

What was presented last week as a softening of union attitudes towards league converts who wish to return was nothing of the sort. At the International Board's meeting in Vancouver the previous week, it was agreed to redraft the regulation that at the moment imposes a life playing ban on those who switch to league. The rule has been flouted in Australia and New Zealand and the Daily Mail revealed on Wednesday that Alain Carminati, a member of France's World Cup squad, was allowed back into union only three months after playing league for Perpignan.

It is not just other countries' being less paranoid that has pushed the British into supporting a relaxation of the ban - it is the threat of losing a restraint of choice case. Last week they received such a writ from the Welshman Stuart Evans, who stopped playing for St Helens more than three years ago but has been prevented from even playing for his pub team back home in Neath.

If they were to lose that case - and legal opinion suggests they would - then they fear an open gangway would then exist between the codes and league players would come streaming back. Imagine the horror if Jonathan Davies were to be seen on a union pitch again. They should be so lucky] It demonstrates how much they think about the game itself, that instead of regarding the return of such players as bringing benefit to union, they see it as an affront to their stewardship. But there is no evidence that the league men would flock back. In any case, that would be more damaging to league. Certainly, Davies has no wish to dash back, but he may like to play for his village team in a few years' time. Since the Board are considering legal advice that they should reduce the ban to three years, that may have to be the outer limit of his expectations.

A free gangway will one day arrive and within 10 or 20 years I would expect rugby to end up with one game. There are not that many great rugby players that we can afford to keep them divided. And players in Wales and England appear to have lost faith in the way the game is being run.

In many ways, it was a shame that the northern clubs broke away when they did. Had they remained in the union, they would surely have gained the support of the Welsh clubs and perhaps have grown to dominate the union.

That would probably have ushered in professionalism in far more orderly and honest fashion.

The trouble has been that, just as the devil has all the best songs, league has all the best moves. And once the league had introduced a development, as sensible as it might be, union would immediately be dead set against it. It may well be that the time has come to reduce the number of players on the field. Too late; league did it ages ago. Perhaps the line-out has outlived its usefulness - especially with England introducing a player over 7ft tall into their Under-21 team. Too late; league lost it long ago.

I am not saying that any new code would automatically embrace all the modifications introduced by league. You would want the scrum restored to its former glory but the six-tackle rule is worth a few second thoughts, and there is an appetite for seeing the eternal virtues of rugby - running, handling, passing, tackling and kicking - displayed regularly and attractively at all union levels.

Such an ambition ought to be at the top of the game's priorities. It does not seem to be anywhere near it.

NEIL HAMILTON did not find many supporters when he was forced to resign his ministerial post over allegations about his financial interests - but he was cheered back to the House of Commons unsaddling enclosure by the bookmakers.

Apparently, it is on his behalf they say their prayers every night because of the major part he played in getting the betting shops opened on Sundays next year. All those punters who enjoy the Sabbath amnesty in the constant war against the bookies will no doubt wish to add their dismay at his present circumstances.