League leaders consigned to union's basement

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The Independent Online

Jack Rowell, the former England coach, now associated in a non-full-time capacity with Bristol, said the other day that rugby league was a more exciting spectacle than rugby union. After the Sale v Leicester match Dean Richards, Leicester's Director of Rugby, was reported to agree with him, adding: "I think the two games might come together. In terms of the requirements of players on the pitch the two are getting closer and closer. There will certainly be more chance for players to switch code than ever before and the movement will be both ways."

Jack Rowell, the former England coach, now associated in a non-full-time capacity with Bristol, said the other day that rugby league was a more exciting spectacle than rugby union. After the Sale v Leicester match Dean Richards, Leicester's Director of Rugby, was reported to agree with him, adding: "I think the two games might come together. In terms of the requirements of players on the pitch the two are getting closer and closer. There will certainly be more chance for players to switch code than ever before and the movement will be both ways."

This may well turn out to be so. Yet the surprising thing about the last five years is not how much movement there has been but how little. And such movement as we have seen has been principally from league to union, with mixed results.

Certainly Wales have been strengthened in the past few seasons by the return of Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs, David Young and Scott Quinnell. Indeed, one wonders what they would have been like if it had not been for their return. But Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, never properly appreciated Bateman's qualities. Both he and Young are now getting on in years. So, also, are Paul Moriarty and the recently retired Richard Webster. Neither was given the opportunity he might reasonably have expected.

As for the most distinguished former league player of all, he was given hardly any chance, whether by Cardiff, by Wales or by the British Lions. I refer, of course, to Jonathan Davies. At Cardiff he was, by most accounts, frozen out by jealous colleagues and deprived of any supply of the ball. Wales showed no disposition to play him regularly though he could have been accommodated with perfect comfort not only at outside-half but at centre or at full-back.

To play for the Lions had been Davies' only remaining rugby ambition and while Fran Cotton, the 1997 manager in South Africa, fully appreciated the qualities of former league players - notably Alan Tait and John Bentley whose careers he helped revive - he still left Davies at home. But with television-summarising and column-writing (in the Independent on Sunday) he has plenty to occupy himself with. And, like the chap in the Murphy's stout advertisement, he does not seem at all bitter.

Tait was appreciated by Scotland and was one of their outstanding players in the last couple of seasons until he retired, possessing as he did the Bateman-like knack of turning up out of nowhere to score the crucial try. Bentley, by contrast, was not valued at all by the England selectors once he had returned from South Africa. It may be that the same consideration operated against him as, in Wales, operated against Moriarty, Webster and Davies: his clock was going tick-tock.

Even so, one cannot escape the conclusion that - perhaps because of the greater union resources at their disposal - England are less comfortable than Scotland or Wales when dealing with former league players, irrespective of whether they are making the switch for the first time in their adult lives or returning to their original code.

In the latter category I would sight not only Bentley but a slightly faster wing, Martin Offiah. I first saw Offiah playing for Rosslyn Park in the Middlesex Sevens. It was evident that he possessed not only exceptional pace but some rugby ability. For whatever reason, he was not encouraged by the selectors. It came as no surprise when he went to Widnes. In the autumn of his days he can still probably outpace every union wing. But, though he had a brief flirtation with Bedford, no serious attempt seems to have been made to entice him back to the upper union regions.

Among players who switched for the first time, Barrie-Jon Mather should surely have been taken greater care of. He did after all, play centre for Great Britain. After he moved to Sale he briefly became a member of Clive Woodward's England squad but progressed no further. He has now returned to rugby league. Sale have recently signed Jason Robinson from Wigan. It seems to be forgotten that not so long ago Robinson had a part-season with Bath. On the one occasion when I saw him he displayed an elusiveness not seen since Gerald Davies. But, just as he was in and out of his opponents, he was in and out of the Bath side and never seemed to settle at the Rec any more than did Bath's other import Henry Paul. Nor did the other Paul brother, Robbie, fit in easily with Harlequins.

The league player who did fit in at the Stoop was the outside centre Gary Connolly. With the imminent retirement of Jeremy Guscott, Connolly should have been secured for England. An attempt was made but it broke down. And Woodward is still looking for an outside centre.

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