Rugby union: Players seduced by glory and the money

Jonathan Davies says league is losing out to union on the financial playing field
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The Independent Online
Frano Botica was in the Llanelli side when Cardiff played at Stradey Park on Wednesday and, after they'd given us a good tonking - we were caught cold and they were 38 points up before we got into the game, we talked about the time we last played against each other, when he was with Wigan and I was with Warrington.

We both enjoyed our time in rugby league but we came to the conclusion that the days of union players changing codes had come to an end, temporarily at least. Back in the 1980s we were two outside-halves looking to make a living out of playing rugby - I'm delighted it's not a crime any more - and we moved to league to make the best out of the only opportunity available.

But the money-making chances are now heavily in union's favour. A player like Frano, who is 33, could go back to league tomorrow and earn well but, apart from the fact that league is more physically demanding, the amounts available in union are far higher and the range of opportunities much wider.

Any top player prepared to travel can take his pick of the world and terrific offers are being made from places such as Japan and Italy. Frano joked that if he went to Japan he'd be halfway home to New Zealand. He'd also earn a lot more money as well as prolong his career.

He wasn't suggesting that this was his plan - he seems very happy banging over goals for the Scarlets; we were just comparing what was on offer now to a few years ago. League is definitely coming off worse.

When the league season restarts, the number of stars who have converted back to union since last summer is going to show. Va'aiga Tuigamala is a big loss and there will be a lot of holes where the Welsh used to be. Alan Tait was in the Scottish team yesterday and John Bentley in the preliminary British Lions squad.

League stalwarts will say that their game was never dependent on signing union stars, but it was always a big publicity coup when we signed and we earned our money by the extra interest we created. You won't find any ex-league players criticising the game they've left behind. I loved every minute and so did the others who succeeded in making the change. But simple economics have taken over and league is going to have to get very rich very quickly to attract big names in the future.

Two excellent league cup ties during the past few weeks will have whetted the fans' appetite for the forthcoming season. Wigan's defeat by St Helens and last weekend's victory by Bradford Bulls at London Broncos produced some great rugby and it will be fascinating to see how big a following league's summer season can attract both at the turnstiles and on television. There is no doubt that it is a spectacular game and, even though union is improving fast, league can still offer more action.

There are reasons why playing league is preferable: you get more involved and the game itself can be more fulfilling and less frustrating; training is not so structured and time-consuming; the fixtures are more straightforward and you do not get tangled up with international seasons and conflict between club and country priorities.

But the high media profile of union, the glory factor, is hard to match at the moment and the money being bandied about some union clubs is astronomical. Maybe it won't last, but while it does, union holds a distinct edge.

One thing is unlikely to happen again - league clubs allowing players to go on loan to union clubs. The move persuaded Tuigamala to return to union permanently and those league players who went back didn't seem to benefit from the experience.

Wigan came off worse. Apart from Tuigamala, they let Jason Robinson, Gary Connolly and Henry Paul go. When they returned to Wigan to play St Helens in the cup, Connolly was injured and the others looked jaded. The team hadn't played enough together and Saints, who refused to let anyone go, were in far better shape. It was a bad mistake and their first harsh lesson of rugby's new world.