Rugby's parallel lions at cross purposes

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The Independent Online
If Bath had played their historic game against Wigan even one year ago they would have been the subject of an immediate ban by the Rugby Football Union for appearing on the same pitch as league players. The Rugby Football League, on the other hand, had no such rule about consorting with the enemy so Wigan would not have been punished although the team might have been taken to the nearest Pennines hill farm and put through a sheep dip as a precaution.

This is what we should be celebrating this weekend. The end of hatred, jealousy and bigotry. Not that these qualities will disappear from the world of rugby - there has been plenty of evidence from both codes that they are raising their snarling heads elsewhere - but the match at Maine Road on Wednesday, plus Wigan's appearance in the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham yesterday, signals the welcome end of the most immoral and detestable blemish sport has suffered since it first took on an organised structure a century or more ago.

Rugby union's long-awaited agreement that it would at last sweep professionalism from under the carpet was made many months ago but it became official in England only last week. The final bastions of true amateurism marked the occasion by hardly looking up from bitter arguments about how much money they could get control over. It was left to Bath, the English champions, to allow us some formal celebration of the event by offering themselves as the symbolic bridge over a century of troubled waters. Wigan duly marched over them. As a ceremony it would have appealed more to the North than the South but Bath deserve tremendous respect for their willingness to embark on this forlorn hope.

It may be naive to attribute any altruistic motive to Bath's agreement to play. The match was conceived as a simple commercial exercise. But if the entire Bath team had joined Jeremy Guscott in refusing to play, the game would not have happened. To those inclined to the romantic view, it was as if Bath were willing to be sacrificed in the cause of healing the rift between the codes. There was a touch of the Light Brigade about it; a suicidal charge against overwhelming odds.

They may have lacked any sense of basic technique and were hopelessly outclassed in handling, passing, running and tackling. But you couldn't fault their courage. At one time in the first half the Sky commentator reported that there were four Bath players in the blood-bin. That was the last piece of information he gave on that score. Either he stopped counting or Bath ran out of blood.

It was in the second half that the rout took on a fascinating twist. Not only did Jon Callard score a try for Bath but he and his colleagues displayed a quickening of their learning powers to assemble one or two bits of acceptable rugby league action and there were moments when they looked to be enjoying themselves. The feeling transmitted itself to the crowd and, judging by the reaction in my local pub, to viewers generally. The game was suddenly about how the joys of rugby could be transmitted across the frontiers of its parallel worlds.

The lesson that Wigan provided, not only to Bath but the whole of rugby union in Europe, will urge upon that game the imperative of making a quick improvement to the skill and tempo of their game. The match statistics showed that Wigan had possession for only two minutes longer than Bath, 24 mins 43 secs as against 22:43, which proves that it is not the amount of ball you get but what you do with it that counts.

Phil de Glanville took one sore satisfaction home; he made 23 tackles, which was more than any other back on either side. The top tackler was Wigan's second-row forward Simon Haughton with 31 but the most impressive figures were registered by the prop Terry O'Connor, who made 30 tackles, ran 20 drives, i.e. carrying the ball into the opposition lines, and gained 146 yards. It didn't go unnoticed that Bath's young substitute Ed Pearce managed 10 tackles, 19 drives and 107 yards.

Pearce, Ojomoh, Adebayo, Callard and de Glanville were among those who, according to league judges, might make useful recruits to their ranks. What might have escaped them in this celebration of their game's attractions was that their role as predators might be over. The same revolution that allowed them to get at Bath also ushers in an era where they might provide the prey in future. The transfer of Scott Quinnell from Wigan to Richmond might have carried more significance than Wigan's triumph. Millionaires in England now abed might be looking at Va'aiga Tuigamala, Jason Robinson and one or two others as likely union captures.

We will soon see how they would fit into the other game when Bath get their chance for revenge in union at Twickenham on 25 May. Wigan are a little wary about falling foul of the rules. "You need six O-levels to understand them," their skipper Shaun Edwards complained.

Six O-levels between 13 isn't a lot to ask for. Bath, of course, could make it a much harder examination if they keep the game tight. I hope, however, that they continue to embrace the spirit of the times. Not many others in rugby union seem to be.

The BBC on Friday revealed plans for expanding their service through the miracle of digital television possibly within two years; which is about the length of time most of us will take to fathom out what they're talking about.

It is all about wide screens, better pictures and sound and access to a service beyond the comprehension of simple licence-payers. Although I expect they'll understand the bit about paying pounds 600 for a receiver. With all these new facilities and link-ups with satellites and such, we will have access to hundreds of channels. Will it mean that the BBC will be able to give Murdoch a run for Sky money in bidding for the big sporting events?

Alas, I have to report that they seem to be backing away from pay-per- view and have no plans to oppose Sky by having their premium pay sports channel. I trust this doesn't mean that they're capitulating before they start.

It may be an appropriate time to remind John Birt and his cohorts that sport is bound to be one of their biggest battlegrounds and that the nation expects them to heed the first requirement of digital TV; get your bloody finger out.

Arsenal's Paul Merson received an overwhelming appreciation of his battle against alcohol and drug dependency when a testimonial match at Highbury last week raised pounds 400,000 for him. Stars like Paul Gascoigne appeared as did Arsenal's 1971 Double-winning team complete with George Graham who was given a rousing welcome. Forgiveness night, indeed.

Perhaps Merson can now settle down to normality with fewer reminders of his past being dredged up. The television show They Think It's All Over has made him the butt of particularly cruel jibes. He deserves a rest from all that.

It is with heavy heart, therefore, that I am forced to reveal an extract from Merson's testimonial programme. Describing how he discovered him on the north London parks, the Arsenal scout Bill Graves writes: "Paul was very little for a 14-year-old . . . but I took one look at his feet and knew he'd shoot up."