Rugby Union: Take heart from lesson of league

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The Independent Online
THE ONLY prediction I can make about the forthcoming rugby season with any confidence is that a French team will win the European Cup - and that's a sad note with which to start because the competition has been a highly competitive curtain-raiser over the past few years.

The clashes between the top club teams in Europe have given us some of the best rugby moments we've ever had at that level. It is a shame that the rest of the season tended to be a bit of a shapeless mess but at least there was an exciting start. Now, the absence of the English clubs plus Cardiff and Swansea puts a dampener on the event and I feel particularly sorry for Bath who are unable to defend the title they snatched in injury time against Brive in the final at Bordeaux in January.

I don't want my friends in Pontypridd and Llanelli to get upset, and I mean no disrespect to the Scots and the Irish, but it will take a super-human effort from them to stop the French dominating the tournament.

We can only hope that what will emerge from all the controversies of the moment will be well-structured seasons with a European competition as a main highlight - and the French having an increasingly hard time of it.

We should take some encouragement from what has happened in rugby league.

Over the past few years they've also been going through difficult times; not so much through internal bickering but because they've restructured their entire existence. Changing to summer rugby was hard enough for both players and supporters but last year came the debacle of the World Club Championships in which our clubs came off very badly against Australians.

You have to credit them for taking those defeats on the chin and emerging better for the experience.

It hasn't been easy for rugby league to attract attention, what with the headlines being grabbed by all the wrangling in union, but they've been quietly making a success of their new-look season. The idea of having the top five teams involved in play-offs that will result in a Grand Final on 24 October has paid off.

It may prolong the season but it has kept it alive for more clubs. There were still three battling for the fifth spot last week.

What's more, the standard of play has been steadily rising. The players have now adapted to the rule changes and have tightened up their defensive play since their battering by the Aussies last year. Those ridiculously high scorelines are now a thing of the past and we are seeing much closer games.

I've seen three great games in the past couple of weeks or so - St Helens v Bradford, Leeds v Wigan and Halifax v Bradford. And there have been some excellent individual performances although the same two players, Andy Farrell of Wigan and Iestyn Harris of Leeds, are still dominating everything. The meeting of their teams was terrific to watch and I mean that literally because the ferocity of the tackling really was terrifying. But the game still managed to be very creative. Simon Haughton scored a brilliant try for Wigan, which was matched by Brad Goredon's for Leeds, while Harris created a super try for Francis Cummings. But it really was hard. Mick Cassidy has been suspended for six weeks for his hit on Adrian Morley and it could have been a lot longer.

I'm looking forward to the play-offs and I wish more people could be watching these games. Money from satellite TV has been the life-blood of rugby league but, unfortunately, it does mean that only a privileged audience is able to watch the skilful and speedy stuff they are serving up.

The menu is going to be even more inviting when the Test series between Great Britain and New Zealand starts. The prospect of Farrell and Harris in the same team is juicy enough but, having beaten Australia recently, the Kiwis are going to be very tough opposition. I hope that we'll see some of that confrontation on terrestrial television in edited highlights so that the wider audience can witness for themselves the progress our rugby league is making. It certainly gives the union boys something to live up to in the months ahead.

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