Learning the Warrior code

Saracens and Wigan's rugby league team are planning a revolutionary 'hybrid' encounter

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Saracens plan to face Wigan Warriors in a 13-a-side match under revolutionary "hybrid" rules mixing elements of union and league. The Aviva Premiership champions would stage the match against league's Challenge Cup holders at Watford, Wigan or a neutral venue before the end of this season as part of the clubs' new link-up.

Saracens confirmed to The Independent on Sunday their interest in playing under the so-called Hybrid Code invented in Australia by a group including the former Wallaby World Cup-winning coach Bob Dwyer, who had talks with the club on a visit to Britain last week when he also watched the league Four Nations Tests at Wembley.

Under hybrid rules the team in possession uses league's "play the ball" in their own half and switches to union's ruck and maul when they cross halfway, with a 60-second limit on possession to avoid long series of phases such as the 45 defended by Saracens at Twickenham last May when they won the Premiership title against Leicester.

Dwyer's code has so far been played only by schools in Australia, and he says no match would take place without the approval of the governing bodies in league and union. But an inaugural professional outing in England is being lined up by Saracens for a date in March or April, dependent on their performance in cups and Wigan's commitments. It would be quite different from the two matches – one league, one union – played by Wigan and Bath in 1996 and the half-league, half-union game between Sale and St Helens in January 2003.

Andy Farrell, Saracens' assistant coach and the former Wigan captain, has been pivotal in the link-up that will see him and his coaching and conditioning colleagues visit their counterparts at his old club, and vice versa, in the next few weeks. Farrell also helped broker Sarries' £250,000 signing of Wigan centre Joel Tomkins, and he said player swaps at academy level were likely.

"A guy who hasn't made it in the Wigan academy may suit us," Farrell said. "A loose forward in our academy may be suited to the front row in league. Saracens have had a remarkable two and a half years, and Wigan are back to the old fashioned glory days. It makes sense to see how we can help each other, and a cross-code match would be part of that."

Some union devotees have viewed the demise of rucking after the tackle and the adoption of league's defence techniques as creeping steps towards the eventual merger of the codes. The All Blacks won the recent World Cup with a notably less structured style than of old. Farrell said cautiously: "There will always be things tried that people will turn their noses up at. For the time being, union is a worldwide sport and I can't see them merging. Maybe some time in the future it will happen, if they keep trying things like this."

Saracens are determined innovators. They visited the NFL's Miami Dolphins in April and hosted coaches from the Hawthorn Aussie Rules club a fortnight ago. The priority is today's Heineken Cup opener with Treviso, which offers another chance for the Premiership player of the month Owen Farrell – Andy's son – to start at centre outside fly-half Charlie Hodgson. The old-young pair orchestrated a first home Premiership defeat for Gloucester in two years two weeks ago, when Farrell Jnr's kick through the defensive line for Brad Barritt's winning try was a classic league ploy.

The 20-year-old, whom Sarries supporters like to call "Fazlet", was prominent in last season's title-winning campaign and is worthy of an England call-up when the Six Nations squad is named on 1 January, according to both Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall and Farrell Snr.

"The England Saxons only play twice a year now," said Farrell, who gave up coaching England's second string last season to concentrate on his club. "So what do you get judged on? You can only go off players being involved in big club games – you get judged on doing as well as you can in the Premiership and Heineken Cup. A lot of our players, including Owen, have been involved in big games at Wembley with decent crowds, and getting through to the final twice and winning one. As a squad we can't do any more than we're doing. It's only right our guys individually will get honours for their country."

And how about the coaches, Saracens' all-English trio of assistants to the Ulsterman McCall, comprising Farrell, Paul Gustard and Alex Sanderson? Even if Leicester are out of fashion as England consider changes, there appears to be little press clamour for Twickenham to look towards the success story based at St Albans. "It seems to go with the territory as far as Saracens is concerned," Farrell said. "We can only change that perception by keeping on doing what we're doing. Of course we're ambitious as a coaching staff. We're ambitious for Saracens to do well."

Basics of the 'hybrid code'

Thirteen players on each side, and two referees. Possession is "play the ball" with no tackle count in a team's own half and "ruck and maul" in the attacking half, subject to a 60-second "shot clock" during which teams must score or kick or be turned over.

"50-20" rule stipulates that a team earns an attacking scrum by kicking the ball from their half to touch within 20 metres of the goalline without it going out on the full.

Six players each in scrum, no flankers.

Try worth five points, conversions and penalty goals two, field goals one.

Hugh Godwin