Rugby Union: Obstacles litter gangway to free passage: Steve Bale argues that talk of a speedy breaking down of the barrier between the codes is premature

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The Independent Online
It was all so simple when rugby union really was an amateur game. There was a professional alternative called rugby league, and if you wished to be paid for your skill with an oval ball that was where you went, never to return.

Whether this was right or wrong - and a lifetime ban was the only weapon union had against the lure of lucre - was hardly the point. The thing was you knew precisely where you stood. In an amateur game issues such as restraint of trade would have been laughed out of court, if anyone had had the crazy notion that a court was worth involving.

Things have changed, and how. The moment rugby union relaxed the rules governing the earnings its players could make from off-the-field activities -from their fame - was the moment it stepped so close to rugby league that, to the legal mind, the two became indistinguishable.

Stuart Evans, the former Wales rugby union and former St Helens rugby league prop, endorsed this view as soon as he heard that union's century-old life ban on its gone-north apostates would be lifted next March. 'Both games are on a par now,' he said. Only last Wednesday Evans began restraint-of-trade proceedings against the International Rugby Board and Welsh Rugby Union.

He should not get too excited, not yet. Evans has declared his intention of fighting for a place in Wales' World Cup squad next year and his solicitor, Tim Jones, says he hopes Evans will be playing again by Christmas. In neither instance has the player the remotest chance of having his wish fulfilled, not unless the wheels of justice turn faster than usual.

At any rate it will have nothing to do with the IRB. In his excitement, maybe Evans missed the provisos with which the likely changes will be laden.

Australia and New Zealand are drawing up a change of regulation to delete the life ban and replace it with a post- league 'stand-down' period, or suspension, which a player will have to serve before readmission to union.

This may be two years, the Antipodean preference, or three, the minimum which the English, at the other end of the spectrum, would swallow. And even then there is no suggestion from anywhere in the world that players will be permitted to return to international rugby once they have done their time.

So Evans, nowadays a Neath publican, appears doomed to continue his action and could well argue that, if it is restraint of trade to prevent a man earning what he can out of rugby union, then it is equally restraint of trade to restrict him - say to club football - when he is readmitted.

In other words, just as when the IRB permitted quasi-amateurism, which swiftly became quasi-professionalism, it will at its annual meeting next March set in train a course of events that may end in the very thing it is seeking to avoid: a free gangway, without restricting the level of rugby involved, between the professional code and its not-quite-professional counterpart.

In all probability this will be too late for Evans, the close proximity of whose pub to The Gnoll is a permanent and poignant reminder of what he has been missing since he joined St Helens in 1987. Besides, the fight to maintain some at least of the old barriers has only just begun.

'There is an acceptance that a life ban on former professional rugby league players is untenable,' Dudley Wood, the Rugby Football Union secretary, said yesterday. 'But on what conditions they may be allowed to play rugby union is a matter of considerable debate, and one feels there will be considerable strings attached in terms of the period over which they have to qualify and what level they are permitted to play.'

In fact, but for the specific legal pressures Down Under, England would quite happily have continued to defend the status quo. 'The Rugby Union appreciates the legal position but is concerned at the effect it will have on the future of the game,' Wood said. 'The RFU was not unhappy with the present position. It didn't bother us.

'But if, as we are advised, there is a legal problem in maintaining it, then we will certainly be very involved in the discussions as to what qualifications are laid down.' So what the reluctant RFU want is March to mark the end of this affair. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

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