Rugby Union: The case for code freedom

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The Independent Online
IN SUNDAY'S rugby league international at Swansea, Wales, playing against New Zealand, put up their best performance since the national side were re- formed. Congratulations to their new manager, Mike Nicholas, formerly of Warrington and Aberavon.

Once, while Aberavon were playing London Welsh, he was one of the touch judges, having been rested from his normal position at prop. A fracas broke out among the forwards; whereupon Nicholas joined in, deploying his linesman's flag to good effect. I know. I was there. Anyway, the best of luck to him in his new job. I hope, however, that no more Welsh players are going to be enticed north. A glance at Sunday's side should have told us how much Welsh rugby has lost.

It has lost one great player, Jonathan Davies, who has yet to be replaced, though high hopes are reposed in Adrian Davies. Two very good players, John Devereux and David Young, would have been valuable fixtures in the side. Rowland Phillips and Paul Moriarty (who was not playing on Sunday because of injury) would have strengthened the back row, even though in my opinion Wales's forward troubles in recent seasons have stemmed more from the front five than the back three.

Only Davies and Devereux have equalled their previous eminence. Moriarty could, according to reports, have exceeded his, had he not been oppressed by injury. Young and Phillips have struggled to appear in their first teams at all. As for Stuart Evans, he sank without trace almost as soon as he had unpacked his bags. When last heard of, he had returned to West Glamorgan, where he was talking of suing the authorities to enable him to play again for Neath, Swansea or even a local side.

And why not? If a young man makes a mistake, as Evans undoubtedly did, as Young and Phillips may have done, why should he have to live with the consequences for the rest of his sporting life, which could be as long as 15 years? I do not suppose Richard Webster will want to return to Swansea from Salford, but he is only 26. Why should Webster not be able to return if things do not work out? We tend to forget that union rules about league have already been relaxed in ways which, a couple of decades ago, would have seemed inconceivable.

There is now complete transferability between the codes at amateur level. Former league players can play a part in coaching and administration, as David Watkins does at Newport. Last season it was decreed that league players who had not been given the opportunity to play union - in practice, who had not played any union - could start to play the game in their declining years.

I suspect that pressure from the Sports Council may have played a part in these decisions. It certainly did in the change which allowed complete transferability between the codes at amateur level. The rugby league group of (chiefly Labour) MPs persuaded the then Minister for Sport to persuade the Sports Council to persuade the Rugby Football Union to permit amateur transferability.

Perhaps 'persuade' is too polite a word to use. The RFU was informed, no doubt courteously enough, that Government assistance to the game would be cut off or diminished if the change was not made. In principle, there is everything to be said for transferability at all levels: not so much because rugby union has become semi- professional (though it has) as because the union authorities do not object to other professional sportsmen, such as cricketers and footballers, of whom Michael Corcoran, of London Irish, is an example.

But I do not imagine Jonathan Davies would want to play for his club on one Saturday and for the Wales XV on the next. In any case, Warrington would not allow him to. He might still like to come home in the autumn of his days.