Rugby Union: Secret diary of a defector: Richard Webster's journey from Swansea to Salford was two years in the planning. Guy Hodgson plots a union man's route north

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The Independent Online
THERE are few things that will silence a bar at a rugby union club but the entrance of a rugby league coach is one of them.

Doug Laughton, then coach of Widnes, was approached by a Neath official when he was on a scouting trip to watch Elgan Rees in the Seventies. 'You can get out of here,' he was told, 'and you can take the big thug you've brought with you, too.'

The 'thug' in question was Jim Mills, a league player with a ferocious reputation for toughness, which allowed Laughton to reply to the official's request: 'I'll go,' he said, 'but only after you've told him to leave, too.'

Relations have improved since, but only up to a point, and last year Steve Pilgrim, of Wasps, was suspended for a year by the RFU for appearing as a trialist with Laughton's current club, Leeds.

Last week Richard Webster, a 25-year-old flanker for Swansea, Wales and the Lions took the money and will now run out for Salford rugby league club. He signed on Thursday but the seed had been planted more than two years previously.

25 APRIL 1991: When David Young signs for Salford from Leeds, Webster accompanies his friend and former Swansea team- mate.

'I was disillusioned with rugby at the time, and other aspects of my life weren't right,' Webster says. 'I thought I'd like to give rugby league a chance. It was probably the best thing that nothing came of it then.'

Kevin Tamati, then the Salford coach, believes Webster is too young. 'We were impressed with Richard,' the club chairman John Wilkinson says, 'but he had things he wanted to do in rugby union. His coming here was a signal, however, so we kept in touch.'

20 AUGUST 1993: After monitoring Webster's progress with Wales and the Lions, Wilkinson decides to make an approach.

'We'd had a players' meeting after which I asked David Young to contact Richard,' Wilkinson says. 'He'd developed as a player and had achieved most of the things he could in union, and we needed to improve the quality of our forwards.

'We didn't go in for any cloak and dagger stuff. There were no secret meetings or people wandering round in disguises. That's the stuff of years ago. We went about in an open, professional manner, no trials or anything like that. We were selling a product to a player.'

21 AUGUST 1993: Young phones Webster. 'I told David I wasn't interested but that I would talk to them,' Webster says. 'I'd come back from the Lions tour feeling I wanted to prove that I was the bestplayer in my position in the country. I trained really hard, I was feeling fit and I was looking forward to the season with Swansea. The last thing on my mind was playing rugby league.'

12 SEPTEMBER 1993: Webster watches Salford beat Widnes

33-19, their first win of the season, and then talks to club officials for an hour.

'There are people in south Wales who paint a black picture about up here,' Webster says. 'I was very impressed with the chairman and the players. They had a good team spirit which I'd not expected. I hadn't realised there was so much warmth.'

Garry Jack, the Salford player- coach, meanwhile, was evaluating the player. 'His greatest asset is his size. He's a big man with plenty of aggression. He's very mobile, too, which is not always the case with union forwards. He needs to learn the game but he could be very good.'

24 SEPTEMBER 1993: Webster informs the Swansea club chairman Mike James that he is considering turning professional.

'Richard is one of those people with a misplaced ambition,' James says. 'I think it was always his intention to play rugby league at some time in his career, and we knew that about four or five years ago. He's an independent soul. Once he told me he had made his mind up we knew there was no point trying to dissuade him.'

26 SEPTEMBER 1993: Webster travels to Salford again to watch Salford defeat Leeds. He talks to Wilkinson for 90 minutes over lunch and again for an hour after the match.

'The atmosphere in south Wales had been tense,' Webster says. 'It had got out that I'd been talking to Salford and there were stories all over the back pages. At one time there was a feeling that if you went north you were betraying your own people but everyone was very kind to me. I had a few people asking me not to go but no one was abusive. I think they realised that if I was motivated by money I'd have gone years ago.'

28 SEPTEMBER 1993: Webster telephones Wilkinson and agrees to the terms offered. According to reports, he will receive around pounds 150,000 over five years plus bonuses.

'Richard had said that if he was going to sign he'd want to do it quickly,' Wilkinson says. 'He didn't want the thing lingering over his head for weeks. The fee quoted in the papers is on the high side, but it's a good deal for him and also one we regard as affordable.'

29 SEPTEMBER 1993: Webster travels north for a physical which he passes 'with remarkable ease', according to Wilkinson.

'I had a bad knee injury when I was younger,' Webster says, 'which put me out of rugby for two years, but it doesn't bother me now. I trained every day with the Lions in the summer and I've been working hard since. If it is a problem it's not telling me.'

Wilkinson announces that Webster will sign the next day. 'He is tailor-made for our game,' he says. 'He is the best forward in Wales and possibly the best in rugby union.'

30 SEPTEMBER 1993: At 9.45am, Webster signs at a press conference in Salford's Willows club. He becomes the first Welsh rugby union international to turn professional since Mark Jones three years previously.

'I don't expect him to set the world on fire straight away,' Jack says. 'It's a different game and it'll take time for him to acclimatise. He'll not be in the first team straight away. He'll do his apprenticeship in the A team. Richard may become an exceptional player in time but even exceptional players can't always do it immediately. The time to judge him will be in six to 12 months' time.'

Webster is asked if he has any regrets? 'I don't know,' he replies. 'I only signed two minutes ago.'

(Photograph omitted)

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