Rugby Union: Revolving door in the wings

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE historian F W Maitland wrote that the essence of understanding history was to realise that events which are now in the past were once in the future. Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that David Watkins would now be the manager of Newport?

Watkins was - with Lewis Jones before him, Jonathan Davies and John Devereux today - one of those players who were as pre-eminent at league as they had been before at the union game. His present position at Newport is accordingly all the more remarkable.

Why should he not have turned out for his old club once again if he had returned to Wales a few years earlier? Why, come to that, should he not play the odd game for Newport today, if he wants to and is up to it?

As a former league player, he is allowed to be a paid union manager. He is not allowed to be a 'theoretically' unpaid union player. But the various national rugby unions have no objection to paid sporting administrators as such. A paid cricket official would be perfectly welcome to play rugby union.

Likewise, there is no objection to professional sportsmen. Peter Squires played cricket for Yorkshire, Dusty Hare for Nottinghamshire, Alastair Hignell for Gloucestershire. Michael Corcoran, London-Irish's wing, used to be on Chelsea's books; while Paul Grayson, Northampton's outside-half, was once with Accrington.

Until quite recently, only two kinds of league player were allowed to return to union; those serving either in H M Forces or in H M Prisons. Then came full interchangeability at amateur level. This enabled, for example, the Australian (now Japanese) wing Ian Williams to represent Oxford University at both union and league.

The most recent change is that paid league players who never had the opportunity to play rugby union can play the game when they have stopped playing the league variety. But they have to make a choice, as amateur league players do not.

This seems to me a potentially damaging concession from the point of view of union traditionalists.

For one thing, the criterion is impossibly imprecise. I read this week that Ellery Hanley never had the chance to play rugby union. But was that really so? Was there no local union club which would have given a promising 18-year-old a game? (Presumably Hanley would have been a No 7 or, possibly, an even more devastating centre.)

The new rule or concession seems to deny free will. For some rugby players choose initially to turn to rugby union in what is predominantly a league-playing part of the country. One of them was Ray French of St Helens, as he has told us in his excellent autobiography. He then returned to his first love, which was league.

For another thing, the criterion is discriminatory, being directed solely against union players who switch to league. They, and they alone, are to be cast into outer darkness. My view is that, since this concession has been made, a legal challenge by a player such as Jonathan Davies against the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union or both would be likely to succeed.

But wise people give the courts of law a wide berth unless they are very rich or their costs are being met by a large organisation. And it is not really in the interest of the legal authorities to enable their players to make the return journey or to oscillate between the two codes.

Change is more likely to come from political pressure than from legal action. The rugby league group of (chiefly Labour) MPs has proved a formidable interest group, even though it has had to deal with Conservative governments and ministers of sport. For instance, it successfully urged full interchangeability at amateur level.

The group has been in contact again with the Minister for Sport, Iain Sproat, the founder and editor of The Cricketers' Who's Who. Sproat has already indicated that he is none too happy about the way in which rugby union treats league players. Full interchangeability at all levels cannot now be far away.