No future and no sense in unified code of rugby

Click to follow

Sport tells anyone who listens and watches intelligently about the times in which we live: about managed news and corporate politics, greed and envy and what the process of ageing does to strong men. If that sounds grim, there is courage and dignity too.

Take the case of Trevor Foster, an 86-year old Welshman from Newport, whose vast contribution to rugby league both as player (he turned out in three Challenge Cup finals for Bradford Northern and wore Great Britain's colours) and administrator was warmly acknowledged in the House of Commons on Monday night at a dinner for Members of Parliament who support the game.

It cannot be imagined that anyone in sport could have been more gracious than Foster in accepting an award and many tributes or in showing more appreciation of the opportunity rugby league provided at the time of a terrible depression in South Wales.

I did not put it to Foster personally, but much on his mind the other night must have been something that comes to him in rare moments of idleness, when, along with others, he is trying to figure out what the future holds for rugby league, what direction it is taking.

That was the theme of Monday's proceedings. From whispers of a hidden agenda in rugby union's capture of leading league players and coaches to a hybrid form of rugby forced by its television paymasters, the impression was one of uncertainty. I'm telling you this with the blank of a reporter with no great understanding of the central issue, relying solely on views being expressed in various quarters and the thoughts of knowing people I sometimes consult in the course of my researches.

For instance, do the mergers that are seeing impoverished northern rugby union clubs fall into the embrace of sturdier league outfits speak of brotherly love or merely an attempt to tap television money?

There are no doubt some people at my level of ignorance in this matter who claim to belong to that most alarming of groups: the unshockable. They most likely consider the notion of a unified game to be less exaggerated than has been suggested and the inevitable effect of market forces.

Anyway, it was only after long, and what rival groups of industrial protagonists call fruitful discussions, that some idea of what the future might hold for rugby league began to shape up in my mind.

Somewhere along the way it is possible, though far from certain, that league and union will draw closer together to maximise potential, but in truth the future doesn't appear to be a great deal different from the present. Even people who believe that only good can come of mergers, completed and proposed, that could lead to historically advantaged rugby league clubs sending out teams in both codes don't honestly imagine a unified game or think it desirable.

"You have to think that big union clubs like Leicester and Saracens see a lot of financial sense in setting up teams under a rugby league umbrella and it's possible that players will turn out in both codes but for technical reasons it doesn't make much sense to advance the idea of unification," one of them said this week. "You only have too look at the problems Iestyn Harris and Henry Paul, two terrific footballers, have come across in union to realise how difficult it is to cross from one code to the other."

Jonathan Davies, who twice made the transition, from union to league and back again, and was a big star in both, thinks rugby league should make more of its tradition. "For years, league has bitterly complained about union prejudice," he said when we spoke earlier this week, "but they have become just as guilty. Because I returned to union there are people who resent it when I do television commentaries on league. I find that hurtful. I am proud of what I achieved in both codes and don't put one above the other. There is plenty for rugby league to shout about and that is what it should be doing, not sniping at union. As for the idea of one game, it won't work. Once, in Australia, I took part in an experiment along those lines. It was a mess."

No matter how you look at things, it's curious how often that consideration bobs up.