Two games are still better than one

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Rugby League has been getting a good press lately, and so it should. Most of the games leading up to the Grand Final have been superb entertainment and have contained a try-scoring quality that the bogged-down union club game can only envy.

Rugby League has been getting a good press lately, and so it should. Most of the games leading up to the Grand Final have been superb entertainment and have contained a try-scoring quality that the bogged-down union club game can only envy.

Some wise and experienced union men have observed all this with a certain amount of jealousy. Jack Rowell, the Bath stalwart and former England coach, and Leicester's Dean Richards have both been impressed enough to declare that the games could merge in the near future.

Leicester's chairman, Peter Tom, agrees, and his club - bastions of the union game that they are - are weighing up the feasibility of housing both games under one roof at Welford Road. League in summer and union in winter - all-year rugby culminating in the two games blending into one. A lovely dream for some, but utterly unrealistic.

I'm all for Leicester running a team in each code. That is a commercial idea that could work. But a merger between the two? That is an impossibility in the foreseeable future.

I've played both and I love them both, but they have so many deep differences that can't be settled without both codes making huge concessions. The diehard fans on either side certainly wouldn't stand for it and would most probably discover an increased liking for football.

I can see what brings people to the merger conclusion. Facets of the league game, not to mention players and coaches, have infiltrated the union code and have improved certain parts of it. But that is as far as it goes. The games remain fundamentally different, so which is going to give way on what? Is union going to surrender line-outs? Is it going to bid goodbye to rucks, mauls and real scrums? Is league going to abandon the play-the-ball and guaranteed possession through the six-tackle rule? And how many players per side would there be? There are a few peace problems going on in the world today that are a lot easier to solve than finding a unified rugby game that would be acceptable to everyone.

Once professionalism hit union and the barriers dividing the codes were broken down it was inevitable the games would get closer. But I was the first to jump the chasm from both sides and I can testify how difficult it was to make the transition and to bring ideas from one code into the other.

Because league had been professional for so long, it was inevitable that it would have more to teach union than vice-versa. Training methods were one area and, more recently, defence was another. Union has learned a great deal about tackling and defensive alignment from league; so much so that defensive superiority has become a match-winner.

What isn't understood is that only half the lesson has been learned. Union has now got to copy how to get through those defences. League attackers can break down league defences, so why can't their counterparts in union?

It is not quite as simple as that, of course. In league the attack and defence lines are always 10 yards apart. In union, the lines are so flat it is never as much as that. And, don't forget, union has two extra players on the field and, given that one player covers 10 yards, that's 20 extra yards covered.

Talking about the number of players per team, in any merger it would be logical tofollow the league's move to 13 to relieve congestion on the field. But if you had to reduce the union's 15, which positions would you cut? It has to be the wing-forwards. But if you look at the main strength of a successful union team it is usually in the wing-forwards. So where else would you cut?

The answer is that you leave the both codes alone until that far-distant date when they may merge naturally. In the meantime, I'm more worried about the threat of union power. Three top league players, Jason Robinson, Fereti Tuilagi and Apollo Perelini, are about to join union clubs. That's not a healthy trend for league. Its more like murder than merger.

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